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A Values Perspective

Elizabeth A. Segal
±± Arizona State University

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iv Brief Contents










What Is Social Welfare? 2
Why Study Social Welfare? 3
Premises for Studying Social Welfare 4
Each Person Is a Part of the Social Welfare System 5
Provision of Social Welfare Services 6
Approaches to the Provision of Social Welfare 7
Residual Versus Institutional Approaches 7
Universal Versus Selective Provision of Services 7
Blending Social Welfare Policy Approaches 8
How are People Involved? Public and Private Efforts 9
Why Do We Have a Social Welfare System? 10
Values and Beliefs as the Cornerstone of Social Welfare in America 10
Religious Values 11
Personal Values 12
Social Values 13
Conflicting Values and Beliefs in Social Welfare Policy 14
Undeserving Versus Deserving 15
Personal Failure Versus System Failure 16
Individual Responsibility Versus Social Responsibility 17
Individual Change Versus Social Change 17
Self-sufficiency Versus Social Support 17
Entitlement Versus “Handout” 18
vi Contents

Aid to Those We Know Versus Aid to Strangers 18

Religious and Faith-based Practice Versus Separation of Church and State 18
Crisis Response Versus Prevention 18
Sympathy Versus Empathy 19
Trust Versus Suspicion 19
Rationality Versus Emotions 19
Values and Beliefs Guide Policy Making 19
Changing Demographics and the Need for Social Welfare Policies and
Programs 21
Final Thoughts 22


Colonial Period (1690–1800) 26
Impact of the Colonial Period 29
Conflicting Beliefs of the Colonial Period 29
Pre–Civil War Period (1800–1860) 29
Impact of the Pre–Civil War Period 30
Conflicting Beliefs of the Pre–Civil War Period 30
Civil War and Postwar Period (1861–1874) 30
Impact of the Civil War and Postwar Period 31
Conflicting Beliefs of the Civil War and Postwar Period 32
Progressive Era (1875–1925) 32
Charity Organization Societies 33
Settlement Movement 33
Impact of the Progressive Era 33
Conflicting Beliefs of the Progressive Era 34
The Great Depression and the New Deal (1925–1940) 35
Impact of the Great Depression and New Deal Era 38
Conflicting Beliefs during the Great Depression and New Deal Era 38
World War II and the Postwar Era (1940–1960) 39
Impact of World War II and the Postwar Era 40
Conflicting Beliefs of the World War II Era and the Postwar Era 40
Social Reform (1960–1970s) 40
Impact of the Social Reform Period 41
Conflicting Beliefs of the Social Reform Period 42
Retrenchment: Social Welfare Pull-back Starting in the 1970s and
Through the 1990s 42
Impact of the Retrenchment Years 45
Conflicting Beliefs of the Retrenchment Years 46
The New Century 46
Final Thoughts 49
Contents vii


Ideologies of the Social Welfare System 55
Cause and Function 55
Blaming the Victim 55
The Culture of Poverty and the Underclass 56
Conservative and Liberal Political Perspectives 57
Biological Determinism 57
Social Welfare Services as a Right 58
Theories of the Evolution of the Social Welfare System 58
Industrialization and the Social Welfare System 59
Cycles of History 60
Social Control 61
Elite Power Theory 61
Economics as a Determinant of Social Welfare Policy 62
Critical Theory 64
Postindustrialization and Globalization 65
Paradigms of the Social Welfare System 65
Social Construction 66
Critical Analysis 67
Distributive Justice 68
Strengths-Based Model 69
Social Empathy 69
Social Work Professional Paradigm 70
Conflicting Values and Beliefs and the Theoretical Foundation of Social
Welfare Policy 71
Final Thoughts on the Conceptual Foundation of Social Welfare
Policy 71


The Professionalization of Social Welfare Services 75
History of Social Work 75
Professional Contributions of the Charity Organization Societies and
Settlement Movement 77
Charity Organization Societies 77
Settlement Movement 79
Public and Private Providers of Social Welfare Services 80
Government Roles 80
Federal Government 81
State Governments 81
Local Governments 82
Tribal Governments 82
Should the Federal Government Provide Social Services? 82
viii Contents

Private Agencies 84
Nonprofit Organizations 85
For-Profit Organizations 85
Forms of Social Welfare Assistance 85
Public Assistance and Social Insurance 85
Cash Assistance Programs 87
In-Kind Benefit Programs 87
Vouchers 87
Entitlement 88
Social Investment 88
Economic Development 89
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 89
Final Thoughts on the Delivery of Social Welfare Services 90


Barriers to Social Justice and Civil Rights 93
The Constitution: Cornerstone of Civil Rights 95
The History of Voting Rights in the United States 96
Voting Rights for African-American Men 97
Voting Rights for Women 98
Voting Rights for Indigenous People 99
Mexican Immigration and Latino Voting Rights 99
Protection from Discrimination and Oppression 100
Protection from Racism 100
Hate Crimes Legislation 103
Affirmative Action 104
Women’s Rights 106
Equal Rights Amendment 106
Equality in Education: Title IX 107
The Abortion Controversy 109
Violence Against Women 110
Rights of People with Disabilities 112
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights 113
Native Americans and Civil Rights 115
Civil Rights and Immigration 117
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 119
Final Thoughts on Social Justice and Civil Rights 119


What is Policy Analysis? 125
The Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy Development 125
Rationalism in Policy Making 126
Incrementalism in Policy Making 126
Contents ix

Window of Opportunity in Policy Making 127

Magnitude in Policy Making 128
Critical Analysis of Social Welfare Policy 128
Implementation of Policies 129
Street-Level Bureaucrats 129
Models of Social Welfare Policy Analysis 130
Sequential Model of Analysis 130
Critical Theory Model of Analysis 134
The Impact of Values and Beliefs on Social Welfare Policy 135
Social Welfare Policy and the Political Arena 135
The Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy: Application of the Model 137
Sequential Model Applied—Welfare Reform 137
Critical Analysis Model Applied—Welfare Reform 139
Social Welfare Policy Research 142
Data and Statistics Sources 143
Government Agencies 144
Government Research Sources 145
Legislative Information 146
Advocacy Groups 147
State and Local Sources 147
Final Thoughts on Social Welfare Policy Analysis 148


What Is Social Insurance? 152
History of Social Security 152
The Twofold Purpose of the Social Security Act 154
Social Insurance 156
Public Assistance 157
How the OASDI Program Works 158
Public Perceptions of Social Security 160
How Important Is Social Security? 160
Limitations of Social Security 161
Changes in the Social Security Program 163
The Future of Social Security 164
Solvency of the Trust Fund 166
Privatization of Social Security 167
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 168
Final Thoughts on Social Insurance 169


Defining Poverty and Economic Need 173
Measures of Poverty 173
How Many People Are Poor? 176
x Contents

Who are the Poor? 177

The Working Poor 177
Women and Poverty 180
Children and Poverty 180
Race and Poverty 180
Homeless People 181
What Causes Poverty? 182
Antipoverty Policies and Programs 183
Programs to Ensure Economic Stability 183
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) 183
Supplemental Security Income 186
Earned Income Tax Credit 186
Minimum Wage 187
Programs Providing In-kind Support 188
Food Stamps/Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program 188
Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children 189
Public Housing 189
Relative Poverty and Feelings of Economic Decline 190
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 190
Undeserving Versus Deserving 191
Personal Failure Versus System Failure 191
Self-sufficiency Versus Social Support 192
Those We Know Versus Those Who are Strangers 192
Sympathy Versus Empathy 192
Final Thoughts on Poverty 193


Ideological Differences between Social Work and Economics 198
Competitive Marketplace 199
Cost/Benefit Emphasis 199
Mathematical Calculations 200
Key Economic Concepts 200
Role of the Marketplace 200
Employment and Unemployment 202
Types of Unemployment 204
Effects of Unemployment 204
Impact of Race and Gender on Employment and Economic Well-being 205
Employment and Job Creation 206
Taxes 208
Major Economic Social Welfare Programs Tied to Economic
Conditions 211
Unemployment Insurance 211
Minimum Wage 212
Earned Income Tax Credit 214
Contents xi

Impact of the Federal Budget on Social Welfare Policy 214

What Is the Federal Budget? 215
What Are Federal Budget Surpluses and Deficits? 215
Consequences of the Deficit 217
Budget Priorities 217
Corporate America 219
Changes in the Workforce 220
The Economic Impact of Housing and Mortgages 222
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 223
Final Thoughts on the Impact of the Economy 224


Overview of Current Conditions 229
The Child Welfare System 231
Historical Development of Child and Family Policy 232
The Progressive Era 235
The Great Depression and the New Deal 235
The War on Poverty 236
The 1970s and Child Protection 236
The 1980s and 1990s: Welfare Reform and Preserving Families 237
The New Millennium 239
Major Federal Programs Providing Aid and Services to Children and
Families 240
Income Assistance 240
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) 240
Child Support Enforcement 241
Food and Nutrition 241
Health Care 242
Medicaid 242
State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) 242
Maternal Health Care 243
Child Protective Services 243
Abuse and Neglect/Maltreatment 243
Foster Care and Adoption 244
Education 247
Children with Disabilities 248
Head Start 249
No Child Left Behind Program 249
Emerging Social Concerns 250
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 251
Final Thoughts on Children and Families 251
xii Contents


Overview of Health Care Policy in the United States 256
Overview of Mental Health Care Policy
in the United States 259
Major Health Programs 260
Medicare 260
Medicaid 262
Immunization 263
Disability Insurance 264
Supplemental Security Income 264
Community Mental Health Centers 265
Current Needs and Policy Issues 266
Lack of Health Insurance Coverage 266
High Cost of Medical Care 267
Managed Care 268
Emerging Health Concerns 269
HIV Infection and AIDS 269
Incidence of HIV Infection and AIDS 270
Social Policy Efforts 270
Alcohol and Illegal Drugs 271
Alzheimer’s Disease 272
Diabetes 273
Health Needs of Veterans 273
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 274
Final Thoughts on Health Care Policy 274


History of Social Welfare Policies Related to Aging 278
Services for Promoting and Protecting Elderly People 279
Older Americans Act of 1965 279
Protective Services for Elderly People 280
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) 282
Financial Security 282
Income Assistance: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 283
Retirement Security 283
Social Security 284
Pensions 285
Private Savings 286
Employment after Retirement 286
Variability in Financial Security by Race and Gender 287
Health Care for an Aging Population 288
Health Expenses 288
Contents xiii

Medicare 289
Long-Term Care 289
Medicaid 290
Types of Caregiving and Caregivers 291
Political Power 291
Voting 292
Intergenerational Relations: Conflict or Cooperation? 292
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 293
Final Thoughts on Aging and Social Welfare Policy 293


Forced Relocation and Enslavement 298
Immigrants and Refugees 299
Globalization 303
Border Policies between Mexico and the United States 304
How Does the United States Compare with Other Nations? 306
Social Welfare Policies Supporting Work 306
Social Welfare and Health 307
Health Care Spending 307
Social Security Programs 309
Poverty 310
Climate and Natural Disasters 311
International Relations 312
Conflicting Values and Beliefs 313
Final Thoughts 313


How Important Is Social Welfare Policy to Social Workers? 318
The Power of Social Welfare Policy 319
Addressing Racial Discrimination 320
Addressing Gender Discrimination 320
Securing Retirement 320
Ensuring Public Safety 320
Providing Public Education 321
How Does Social Welfare Policy Change? 322
Congress and How Laws Are Made 323
Executive Orders 324
Judicial Process 326
State and Local Governance 327
xiv Contents

Tribal Governance 327

The Influence of Advocacy Groups 327
Limitations of Social Welfare Policy 329
Policy Practice 329
The Power of Voting 329
Advocacy—Getting One’s Voice Heard 332
Lobbying 332
Letter Writing 332
Email 333
Telephone Calls 333
Organized Letter Writing and Calling Campaigns 333
In-Person Meetings 333
Town Halls or Community Meetings 334
Conflicting Values and Beliefs: Where Do We Go
from Here? 335
Developing Social Welfare Policies That
Promote Social Justice 336
Final Thoughts on the Impact of Social Welfare Policy 337


Every day of our lives we are confronted by social welfare issues. In a typical day in
America the news reports that the President and Congress cannot agree on how
to balance the national budget. . .the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease
is growing. . .states are voting whether or not to provide health care for
immigrants. . .jobs are lost in the United States because another factory moved
overseas. . .these are all social welfare concerns. Every time you receive a paycheck,
dollars are withheld to pay taxes and you become an active participant in our social
welfare system. When you drive your car on public roads or visit a public library, you
are benefiting from government services. Social welfare policy touches every facet of
our professional and personal lives.
This book is a comprehensive introductory social welfare policy text for both
undergraduate and graduate students who are new to social work and human ser-
vices. The book is designed to help students understand what drives social welfare
policy, how it affects people’s lives, and to gain insight into key issues of social
concern. Unique to this social welfare policy text is a discussion of the values and
beliefs that drive our social welfare system. These conflicting values and beliefs are
presented throughout the book and help to explain the divergent approaches used
to address social concerns. By emphasizing the conflicting values and beliefs that
people hold, it is possible to better understand the motivations behind our social
welfare policies. This book guides the reader through areas of social policy con-
cern, including poverty, health care, child welfare, and aging, with a foundation
of ideologies, theories, values, and beliefs to help explain our social welfare system.
Added to this edition is more material on conducting policy analyses and guidance
for influencing the policy arena.
Newcomers to the study of social welfare policy will find this book extremely
helpful. The American system of social welfare is so broad and complex that it
would be impossible to include in-depth coverage of every policy issue. Instead,
xvi Preface

this book serves as a comprehensive overview to the social welfare policy arena.
The text is designed to help the reader to feel comfortable with social welfare pol-
icy concepts and to serve as a guide for conducting social welfare policy analyses.
This text examines the major social welfare policies and programs in the United
States from colonial times into the 2009 legislative year. Reading through the en-
tire book will help students to become “policy literate”—able to understand,
analyze, and influence public policies.
This book reflects my experiences teaching undergraduate and graduate social
work students for over 20 years. The organization of the book follows the best
way I have found for teaching the material. However, I encourage users of this
book to arrange the order of the chapters that best suits your needs. I have orga-
nized the chapters to build on each other, but I have also tried to format them to
stand alone should an instructor prefer a different order. I owe a great deal to my
students for helping me shape this text. I hope I have responded well to their ques-
tions, comments, and suggestions. I have also been blessed with wonderful collea-
gues and friends who over the years have indulged in my thinking out loud to
craft so many of the ideas reflected in this book. Of course the content is solely
my doing, and I take total responsibility for the accuracy and presentation of all
the material.
I would also like to thank the reviewers for making valuable suggestions and
comments. I appreciate the time and effort they took to carefully review the
Publishing a book involves many people behind the scenes, some directly and
some indirectly. I am grateful to the staff at Cengage for all their efforts to turn a
pile of manuscript pages into a beautiful, bound book. I especially thank my par-
ents, who taught me the power of social welfare policy to promote social justice. I
am eternally grateful to them for giving me the gift of education and the support
and role modeling to follow a lifetime of learning.

Liz Segal




Lauren McFalls/AP Photo

2 Chapter 1

How often do you drive on an interstate highway? Did you attend a public school?
Did you file an income tax form with the Internal Revenue Service this year? All
these actions involve you in social welfare policies and programs in the United
States. Have you ever held a job and received a paycheck and found that part of
your earnings was deducted for something called FICA? If so, you are part of the
largest social welfare program in America, commonly known as Social Security. Al-
most every job in this country is part of the Social Security system. The Federal In-
surance Contribution Act (FICA) requires an employer to withhold a percentage of
an employee’s salary for the Social Security Trust Fund. How much do you know
about FICA? Do you know the exact percentage that is withheld from your pay-
check? Do you know what you will receive in return for this contribution? Should
you know? And if so, why? Social Security is just one of the many social welfare
policies and programs that are part of Americans’ daily lives. Take the test in
Box 1.1 and see what you know about U.S. social welfare policies.


In the term social welfare, “social” speaks to the collective nature of U.S. society.
Citizens are all part of many systems, and those systems combine to form the larger
society. For example, a person is part of his or her family, neighborhood, school or
workplace, and social class. Each person is also defined by different identities, such
as ethnicity, race, gender, religion, physical and mental abilities, sexual orientation,


Test Your Knowledge 6. What is the federal/state cash assistance program

1. What percentage of your paycheck is taken to that has been designed to aid poor children?
pay for Social Security? 7. What major social welfare legislation did Con-
2. What percentage of children under 18 years of gress pass in 1935?
age are living in poverty? 8. Which social welfare program is the most
3. How many members of Congress are there? costly for the federal government?
a. How many are in the House of 9. What is the current amount of the minimum
Representatives? wage?
b. How many are in the Senate? 10. How many judges sit on the United States
4. What is the name of the federal medical as- Supreme Court?
sistance program for the poor? 11. If you need to take time off to care for a sick
5. What is the name of the federal medical insur- child, how much time are you entitled to by law?
ance program for the elderly? 12. Is this paid leave or unpaid leave?

1. 2009—7.65 percent 2. 2007—18 percent 3. 535 a. 435 b. 100 4. Medicaid 5. Medicare
6. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) 7. The Social Security Act 8. Social insurance or Social Security
9. 2009—$7.25 10. 9 11. 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 12. It is unpaid leave.
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 3

and age. ”Welfare” speaks to well-being, the state of healthy balance for people.
Therefore, social welfare means the well-being of society.
The maintenance of the well-being of society is the domain of social welfare
policy. Social welfare policy is the collective response to social problems. Policy im-
plies assuming a position, but that position does not necessarily require action. It
can be an all-out effort to eradicate a social problem or a choice to ignore a social
problem. For example, from 1983 to 1990 the federal government did not have
any public policy related to AIDS. Although the illness had been documented as a
growing national concern since 1983, no federal legislation was enacted until
1990. In part, this inaction represented a federal decision to let local communities
and social service agencies deal with AIDS. It also reflected a decision not to treat
AIDS as a national concern. The choice not to intervene on the federal level also re-
presented a policy. Thus, social welfare policy is a position to act, or not to act, on
a social issue or problem on behalf of society. And these efforts, or lack of efforts,
can be found in federal, state, tribal and local government agencies; nonprofit and
for-profit organizations; religious institutions; and community groups.
Social welfare programs are the products of social welfare policies. As men-
tioned previously, an example of a social welfare program that touches all of us is
social insurance, or what we commonly refer to as Social Security. This program
began as a response to the economic and social conditions of the Great Depression,
which was a time of economic insecurity for millions of people. Something had
to be done to correct the imbalance in the economy and provide some level of
economic support for people. The solution was passage of the 1935 Social
Security Act.
As is so often the case, the public was aware of the problem long before poli-
cies and programs addressed it. Decades went by before social insurance was estab-
lished. In 1935, the force of government legislation created a social economic safety
net. The result was the foundation of today’s Social Security and public assistance
programs. Although this example is simplified, it demonstrates the process by
which social concerns lead to social welfare programs.


To understand the social welfare system is to gain power—the power to question,
advocate for change, and make good decisions about people’s lives. If you know
the strengths and weaknesses of social programs, you can better plan for your fu-
ture. As a professional in the field of human services, you can be a better leader
and better source of information for clients.
Social work, by its nature and professional ethics, is concerned with the well-
being of all members of society. According to the National Association of Social
Workers Code of Ethics, “Social workers should promote the general welfare of
society.” Section 6.04(a) states that “Social workers should be aware of the impact
of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and
legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and
promote social justice” (National Association of Social Workers, 2008). Study of
social welfare policy, programs, and practice is therefore imperative for preparing
to become a social worker.
4 Chapter 1


This book is based on several general guidelines. First, each person is a part of the
social welfare system. At different times in your life your role will vary, but simply
by being a member of society you are automatically part of the system.
Second, this book is posited on the idea that all Americans are both providers
and recipients of social welfare. Every time you earn a paycheck, taxes are withheld
so that the government can pay to provide services. Each year you are required
by law to file income tax returns and to report and pay federal and state taxes.
Every purchase made that requires the payment of a sales tax provides dollars that
pay for public services. Many of those services, such as interstate highways and
public parks, are used by everyone. Some services, such as literacy training or
home-delivered meals, are used only by those who need them. When the govern-
ment uses tax dollars to provide social welfare services, it is taking on a provider
role. Every time you drive on a public road, take a book out of the public library,
rely on fire or police protection, or go to school, you are receiving public social
welfare services and are taking on a recipient role. For example, most universities
and colleges, public or private, receive some government assistance. Whether it is
in the form of state tax dollars, federal money for financial aid, or a tax-exempt
status as a nonprofit institution, social welfare provides benefits to schools, which
are recipients.
Third, there are a number of different approaches to providing social welfare
services. Social programs vary according to the approach used. Examination of the
principles that underlie social services helps us to understand the social welfare
Fourth, public and private efforts contribute to social welfare. Citizens are in-
volved in making social welfare policy. Participating in an election contributes to
the making of social welfare policy because the officials elected develop and enact
public laws. Not voting is also a way of participating in policy making because a
nonvoter is letting those who do vote make the choice. Private efforts are also part
of the overall social welfare system. The United Way or a shelter for physically
abused women is an example of a private service that promotes societal well-
being. Private efforts usually are intertwined with public services, adding to the
breadth of the social welfare system.
The fifth and final premise of this book concerns the influence of values and
beliefs on the U.S. social welfare system. Social welfare efforts are based on social
values and beliefs that shift over time. A value is the worth, desirability, or useful-
ness placed on something, whereas a belief is an opinion or conviction (Oxford
American Dictionary, 1999). Values and beliefs join together when people feel that
something is worth an investment or commitment of money, time, or public aware-
ness. Because people’s values and beliefs are individual forms of expression, getting
a consensus for a national commitment is difficult. Just as values have changed
over time, so too have the policies and programs that have been shaped by those
values. For example, some people once considered slavery to be an acceptable so-
cial order that should be enforced by public policies and laws. Others did not think
that slavery was acceptable and waged a civil war to end it and change the policies
and laws enforcing it. Even after slavery was abolished, conflicting values and
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 5

beliefs fueled dissent over racial issues. This book explores the conflicting values
and beliefs that shape social welfare policies and programs. Understanding the
underlying values and beliefs that have shaped the social conscience of America
illuminates the current state of the social welfare system.
The newcomer to social work and social services will find this book of great as-
sistance in understanding the social welfare system. The book begins with a history
of social welfare policies in America and provides a theoretical foundation for the
U.S. social welfare system. The importance of social justice and civil rights is dis-
cussed. The tools needed to analyze policy are covered, followed by key areas of so-
cial concern. The book concludes with a discussion of the impact of social welfare
policy. This book serves as a guide to understanding the overall structure of the
U.S. social welfare system and as a resource to help you effect change in the system.
A word of caution is necessary here in regard to terminology. The word system
suggests an organized, standardized, cohesive set of policies and programs. This is
far from the reality of social services in the United States. The network of social
services includes a variety of programs based on different policies, developed over
decades, often without cohesiveness or connection. Keep this caveat in mind as
you study this system.


People are members of different social, political, cultural, and economic groups.
Within each of these groups, a person has a different role and responsibility. There-
fore, each person must navigate a complex social network. Ideally, navigation
would occur smoothly, but in reality, this is not the case. Values and priorities
within each domain vary and conflict. For example, on the individual level, a
person’s role as a parent may conflict with his or her role as an employee. Can a
person care for children and be active in the workplace at the same time? Some-
times the conflicts are on a larger scale. Can a person earn enough to live on at
the same time that his or her employer earns enough to make a profit? What hap-
pens when the employer needs to pay less in wages? The employer may move to a
new geographic location in which wages are lower, and jobs may be eliminated in
the original location. Conflicts are inevitable in the social system, and interventions
are needed to lessen or minimize their impact. The goal is to create a sense of well-
being in society. Because systems often conflict and many of these systems are
extensive, there is a need for intervention on a broad scale. Social welfare policies
and programs are created to fulfill this need.
Our social welfare system consists of the organized efforts and structures used
to provide for societal well-being. In its simplest form, the system can be conceptu-
alized as having four interrelated parts: (1) social issues, (2) policy goals, (3) legisla-
tion and regulation, and (4) social welfare programs. The social welfare system
starts with identified social issues. Once an issue has been recognized as a social
concern, policy goals must be articulated. When these goals have been defined, a
public position can be created through legislation or regulation. Finally, legislation
is translated into action through the implementation of a social welfare program
(Figure 1.1). Typically, these steps flow in linear fashion. That is, first an issue is
identified as a social concern before there would be a public response.
6 Chapter 1

Social issue Policy goals Program


During the early years of President George W. Bush’s first administration, the
public was concerned about the high cost of medications for senior citizens. Many
elderly people on fixed incomes could not afford to pay for their medical prescrip-
tions. This issue was identified as a problem in need of social intervention. Politi-
cians responded in 2003 by developing legislation to amend the Medicare
program and expand coverage to include prescription drugs. The legislation created
a new program for seniors. This example demonstrates the flow of the social
welfare system.
The following questions are important when studying the social welfare sys-
tem. The term in parentheses is often used to describe the gist of the question.
What is the issue of concern? (Problem identification)
What would we like to change or achieve? (Goals)
How have we mandated a response to this issue? (Legislation or regulation)
What programs and services have resulted from this mandate? (Service delivery
To understand the American social welfare system, these questions must be asked
and the answers analyzed. Chapter 6 presents an in-depth way to analyze the sys-
tem. The extent to which the changes in Medicare have alleviated the problem of
high costs for medication for seniors requires social policy analysis.


All Americans are providers and recipients of social welfare services. The roles
change from situation to situation. The foundation of a social welfare system is
people contributing to care for others and for themselves. The system exists for
two primary reasons: (1) to create a “safety net” for all people, and (2) to provide
services that individuals cannot provide for themselves, such as fire protection
and interstate highways. Obviously, individuals cannot easily pave their own
roads or protect themselves from emergencies such as fires. The larger society
needs a system to economically and efficiently provide for social needs. Analysis
of social welfare policy allows people to assess whether the system has achieved
this goal. At times, problems arise that demonstrate that the system is not effec-
tive. Through social welfare policy analysis we can determine what works, what
does not, why a program is not working, and how we might change the system.
This ability to analyze social welfare policy is an integral part of the social work
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 7


Several key concepts form the foundation of social welfare services. These concepts
include residual, institutional, universal, and selective approaches to the develop-
ment of social welfare policies and programs.

Residual Versus Institutional Approaches Historically, changing economic and

social conditions moved the country from reliance on private social welfare pro-
grams to acceptance of public social welfare programs. This shift was characterized
by two competing conceptions of social welfare policy: residual and institutional
approaches (Wilensky & Lebeaux, 1965). The first concept, residual social welfare
policy, calls for organized public intervention only when the normal resources of
family and marketplace break down. Social welfare services are called into play
after a problem is identified and cannot be addressed through a person’s own
means. Social services become available in an emergency. The focus is on individ-
ual behaviors and responsibility. The second concept, institutional social welfare
policy, calls for the existence of social welfare programs as part of the social struc-
ture and as part of the normal function of society. Social welfare programs are
seen as a preventive effort built into the social system. Institutional policy is based
on the premise that providing services is a legitimate function of society. The com-
plexities and difficulties of modern life are ever present. Therefore, it is normal for
individuals at times to require the assistance of social institutions. Institutional
social welfare policy focuses on prevention and collective responsibility.
Examination of a social concern helps to illuminate the differences between a re-
sidual and an institutional approach to social welfare policy and programs. For exam-
ple, politicians, the public, and social service providers often view teenage pregnancy
as a social problem. Becoming a mother at an early age may limit a young woman’s
opportunities for education and employment. Opportunities may also be limited for
the children born to young mothers because the parents and children may experience
emotional, economic, and social stress. A residual approach to the social issue of teen-
age pregnancy would focus on providing services after the teenager becomes preg-
nant. Residual programs might include specialized prenatal care for teenage mothers,
school programs held on weekends and nights, and parenting skills classes. An institu-
tional approach would be to help teenagers before pregnancy occurred. Institutional
programs might include establishing school family planning courses that stress delay-
ing parenthood and providing access to birth control resources.
The difference between the residual and institutional approaches is a good ex-
ample of the struggle in developing social welfare policy and programs. To what
extent should individuals be responsible, and to what extent should society be re-
sponsible? For the most part, social welfare policy in this country has followed the
residual approach. Most social programs were created to respond to an identified
need after it occurred. The result of this approach is a categorization system used
to identify who should receive services and who should not.

Universal Versus Selective Provision of Services The principle of universality

calls for social services that provide benefits to all members of society, regardless
8 Chapter 1

of their income or means. Selectivity means that services are restricted to those
who can demonstrate need through established eligibility criteria. A major differ-
ence between universal and selective programs is the extent of the stigma attached
to receiving services. Universal services are available to all, whereas selective ser-
vices are available only to recipients who are identified as incapable of providing
for themselves.
The advantage of universal coverage is that everyone receives the benefit,
which prevents many social problems. A major disadvantage of such an approach
is its cost. Selective coverage ensures that only those most in need will be covered.
Such targeted coverage is less expensive, but it stigmatizes the recipient and can be
too narrow. Those who do not fit the prescribed criteria exactly will not receive

Blending Social Welfare Policy Approaches How do the concepts of residual

and institutional approaches fit with universal and selective approaches? Figure 1.2
demonstrates how some common programs fit these conceptions of social welfare
policy. Most social services are residual and selective, are developed in response to
breakdown, and are available only to those who demonstrate a need. Examples of
selective residual services include public cash assistance and most other aid given to
those who are poor. Very few residual services are universal. One program that is
universal is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The services are available in a crisis such as an earthquake, regardless of whether a
person has financial means. Of course, the effectiveness of those services depends on
the quality of the agency, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in New Orleans. In
spite of poor response, the design of FEMA is to universally respond to an emer-
gency, which is a residual approach.
The clearest examples of universal institutional services are public education
and fire and police protection, which are available to all regardless of income.
Some institutional services are selective. Many may argue that the program com-
monly referred to as Social Security is a universal institutional program. The pro-
gram is actually a selective institutional program: Only those who have worked in
covered employment are eligible to receive benefits, and benefits are determined
according to the person’s history of contributions. It feels universal because today
almost 97 percent of all workers are covered. The structure of the Social Security
program is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 7.

Residual Institutional

Universal Federal Emergency Public Education

Management Agency Fire and Police Protection
Selective Temporary Assistance for Needy Social Security
Families (public cash assistance
program for poor families)


Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 9

Some social welfare programs can be defined as institutional and universal, yet the
actual implementation of many of these programs suggests otherwise. For example,
public education is available to all, although the resources and quality of education
vary by region and community. Jonathan Kozol, in Savage Inequalities: Children in
America’s Schools (1991), argued that there has been a long history of inequality in
the educational system. School spending on children in the suburban communities
outside of New York City, for example, is more than twice as high as spending for
children in city schools. Across the nation, there is great variability. For example,
teaching salaries average highs of $59,825 in California and $59,304 in Connecticut
to lows of $34,709 in South Dakota, and $38,284 in West Virginia (National
Education Association, 2007). Disparity in resources for public education demon-
strates that although all children in this country are entitled to public education, they
do not necessarily receive the same education.
Finally, there is a flow between residual and institutional approaches in the
development of social welfare policies. Let us return to the example of public edu-
cation. We have been discussing it as a universal institutional social welfare pro-
gram, but it has not always fit into this category. Public education began as a
residual response to the problem of juvenile crime and idleness. If young people
were required to attend school, they would be off the streets and would become
better socialized for work and participation in society. Public education was not
originally conceived of or developed as an institutional program, but rather, it
evolved into one. Many institutional social welfare policies and programs evolved
out of residual policy responses.


Participation in the social welfare system may be as simple as driving on a publicly
funded highway, attending a public school, visiting a county hospital or library,
mailing a letter, or working for the city, state, or federal government. It includes pay-
ing taxes on items we buy and wages we earn, taxes that help fund the social welfare
Corporations also receive public support. Private sports teams, for instance,
which are owned by companies or groups of investors, often receive large tax breaks
and even public dollars so they can build stadiums. Many private companies depend
on federal government projects to keep their businesses solvent. States provide tax
deferrals, tax abatements, and low-interest loans to corporations. The federal govern-
ment developed tax-free enterprise zones for businesses and created rules that allow
tax breaks (e.g., companies can subtract the costs of their equipment before the
equipment actually wears out) (Abramovitz, 2001). When deep financial stress hit in
2007 and 2008, the federal government intervened with public support programs
that used billions of dollars of public funds to keep private institutions afloat.
Even when people think they are not involved in the public realm of social wel-
fare, they often are. Thousands of private companies earn contracts to produce
goods or render services funded by the public. For example, a military contract to
build airplanes for the air force goes to a private company. The funds to pay for
the airplanes come from federal taxes collected by the government. Those funds
create the means for corporations to employ people and pay wages that in turn
10 Chapter 1

support families and keep the economy running. And the government, in turn, is
able to tap the expertise of specialists such as airplane manufacturers without
having to create a separate government agency.


The United States is considered the primary working example of capitalism and a
market-place economy. The economy operates through an exchange of goods and ser-
vices—for a day’s work one receives a salary that in turn allows one to purchase what
one needs or wants. However, this system does not always cover all members of soci-
ety. For those who cannot work because of health or physical limitations, for those
who cannot find work, or for those who are excluded because of their race, sex, age,
physical ability, or sexual orientation, there is no market exchange of salary. As a re-
sult, the market system does not provide sufficient resources for some people.
To provide for those outside the market system and keep the system in check,
the U.S. government plays a crucial role in maintaining the social well-being of the
country. For example, the federal government provides services to help people find
work through programs such as job training. The government also provides for
those who cannot work due to physical disability through programs legislated un-
der the Social Security Act. These are examples of federal government intervention
in the marketplace economy. State and local governments operate in much the
same way. For example, schools are run by local people elected to serve on school
boards. Their decisions direct and control the public education each child receives.
Although the underlying principle of the social welfare system is government
involvement, not all people agree with this position. Since the earliest history of
this nation, people have argued for and against government involvement in the so-
cial arena. Those arguments and the types of government roles and systems devel-
oped over the history of this nation are reflected in society’s values and beliefs.
Thus, to fully understand the social welfare policies and programs in this country,
it is imperative to analyze the underlying social values and beliefs that have guided
the development of the social welfare system.


Social welfare efforts throughout American history have reflected the dominant va-
lues and beliefs of society. Remember, a value is the worth, desirability, or usefulness
placed on something and a belief is an opinion or conviction. Those values and be-
liefs shift, and as a consequence, so too have public policies. For example, at one
time in this country, the “desirability” of slavery was upheld as legitimate public pol-
icy, only to later become an issue so divisive that the nation faced civil war. One of
the outcomes of the Civil War was that slavery was abolished and became illegal.
Shifts in public values create shifts in public policy. Understanding the underlying
values and beliefs that shape the social conscience of America helps us understand
how the social welfare system of today came to be. Two currents underlie the values
that have shaped social welfare policies, religious beliefs, and social beliefs.
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 11

The evolution of these values and beliefs has not been smooth, and today’s policy re-
flects many conflicting values and beliefs. This conflict makes the creation and imple-
mentation of social welfare policies and programs difficult in the United States.

Religion has held a strong position in maintaining the well-being of U.S. society. A
large proportion of Americans identify with established religions (see Box 1.2). The
development of social welfare services can be traced back to values reflected in the
dominant religions of the early history of this nation. Those dominant religions
were primarily Protestant. The goals of religious charitable efforts were to uphold
moral character, maintain humbleness, and help those less fortunate. Famous Bibli-
cal quotations such as “It is harder for the rich man to enter heaven than for a
camel to fit through the eye of a needle” (from the Book of Matthew in the New
Testament) and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (from the Book of Leviticus in the
Old Testament) reflect a strong symbolism of charity and concern for the needy:
Christian tradition mandates a sympathetic attitude and practice towards the poor,
disadvantaged, or diseased. There is nothing in the Bible resembling advocacy of
material redistribution of resources, much less social or political revolution. The poor,
the ill, the imprisoned, and the weak are to be treated with kindness and love, but
the Bible deals with this as a matter of personal sentiment and moral obligation.
(Wagner, 1999, p. 76)

For the most part, religious values in America have been translated into indi-
vidual reform, not social change. The emphasis was on individual behaviors of
both those giving and those receiving. These emphases are apparent in social wel-
fare efforts of many religious organizations today.
The roles of religion and social welfare are further complicated by the man-
dates of the Constitution. The United States was founded on the principle that reli-
gion and government should not be related. Thomas Jefferson was a firm advocate
of the “separation of church and state,” and this sentiment is codified in the Con-
stitution under the first part of Amendment I of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exer-
cise thereof.” Although religious sentiments influenced charity and social welfare


• Approximately 163 million Americans • Over 60 million people identify them-

(63 percent) identify themselves as selves as Roman Catholics, making
affiliated with a religious Catholicism the single largest
denomination. denomination.
• Members of American Protestant • There are more than 300,000 local
churches total 94 million persons congregations in the United States.
across 220 particular denominations.
Eck (2002)
12 Chapter 1

in this country, the law was clear that the government should not be involved in
the establishment of religion, and at the same time, the government should not in-
terfere with the free practice of religion. These two values are also an influential
part of the social welfare system. Thus, although there is a religious imperative to
help, by law it must be done without blending the roles of government and reli-
gious organizations.
The constellation of social services today challenges this separation. There are
social welfare agencies such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and
Jewish Family and Children Services, to name only a few. These organizations
clearly are identified with religious organizations yet receive public funds and are
therefore part of the social welfare system. The issue of separation of church and
state that these efforts raise is not new and continues to challenge providers of so-
cial services. Box 1.3 presents a point of view that critiques the reality of separation
of church and state for one particular organization, but the point could be argued
for all groups that are affiliated with religions.
The impact of religion in the political arena may follow economic and social
trends. The proportion of Americans who identify as having strong religious beliefs
declined from the mid-1990s to 2007 (Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press, 2007). Dionne (2008) suggests that a look at history since the 1920s reveals
shifts between public attention on religion and morals to economics and secular va-
lues. He argues that when economic concerns grow, less attention is paid to cul-
tural issues, and he suggests that 2008 may have ushered in a shift and the years
to come will be a period when economic prosperity becomes more important than
religion and culture.

Related to religious values are personal values. Each of us has his or her beliefs,
shaped by our life experiences and backgrounds. It is difficult to separate what is
important to us personally from what might be important socially. In fact, personal


Should public dollars be used by religious orga- public funding and yet maintain their religious iden-
nizations to provide social services? tity? Although the public funds that local Catholic
Charities agencies receive are given with the con-
“Although Catholic Charities has a strong reliance
dition that clients are not discriminated against or
on public funding, it may not be operating from a
denied services on the basis of race, cultural back-
strict separation-of-church-and-state philosophy. It
ground, and sexual preference, the reality of how
is clear that Catholic Charities has been influenced
able and willing Catholic Charities agencies are to
by the teachings of the Catholic Church. . . .
offer clients a full range and choice of services can
In a time when the United States has great le-
be questioned given its religious identification.”
vels of cultural, religious, sexual, and racial diver-
sity, is it appropriate and ethical for social services Degeneffe (2003), p. 382
organizations such as Catholic Charities to receive
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 13

beliefs can drive us to be involved publicly. Although we all carry our own values
and beliefs, it is important when analyzing social issues and providing social ser-
vices that we strive to be aware of which values and beliefs are our own, which
are dominant in society, and the intersection of the two.

As the United States was founded on the principle of separation of religion and
state, strong values emerged based on membership in society. Two strong social va-
lues that shaped social welfare policy are social responsibility and citizenship.
Americans have long held the values of hard work and self-sufficiency. However,
at the same time, social responsibility has been valued. Recent opinion polls reflect
this conflicting sentiment (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press,
2007). Americans value individual enterprise. Almost two thirds (62 percent)
polled disagreed with the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by
forces outside our control” and 68 percent disagreed with the statement “hard
work offers little guarantee of success.” Although Americans strongly feel that indi-
vidual effort is rewarded, public opinion also expresses the need for government in-
tervention. More than two thirds (69 percent) say it is the responsibility of the
government to take care of people who cannot care for themselves. Also, 69 per-
cent believe that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and
a place to sleep. Although these numbers suggest that the majority of people favor
government social welfare services, a more accurate picture is seen when one exam-
ines the views of those who identify with one of the two major political parties.
Box 1.4 demonstrates the disparity.
The role of government in aiding its citizens is closely related to the expecta-
tion that citizens will be involved in society. American history is replete with active
civic involvement.
An extensive and participatory civil society took shape from the start of U.S. nation-
hood, even as life for the vast majority of Americans proceeded on farms or in small
towns. In the era between the Revolution and the Civil War, voluntary groups multi-
plied and formed links across localities, spurred on by government activities and popu-
lar political contention in the new republic and by competitive religious evangelism in a
nation without an established church. (Skocpol, 1999, p. 37)


Seventy-nine percent of Democrats say the government should “guarantee

compared to 58 percent of Republicans every citizen enough to eat and a place to
say it is the government’s responsibility sleep.”
to “take care of people who can’t take Pew Research Center for the People & the
care of themselves.” Press (2007)
Eighty-three percent of Democrats
compared to 47 percent of Republicans
14 Chapter 1


“Democracy, civil rights, and represen- selfish ends but for a vision for all of
tative government—to name a few of humanity. Our freedom is based on the
the key institutions that foster human emotional commitments of generations
dignity and wealth—were brought about past.”
by people involved in spontaneous Gintis (2001), pp. xvii–xviii
collective action, fighting not for their

A democracy by definition demands participation of its citizens. A democratic gov-

ernment is founded on the principle that the entire population is involved in the
election of representatives, and hence each person is part of the government system
(see Box 1.5). As Theda Skocpol (1999) discovered in her research on the history
of civic engagement, the nature of American government from the beginning encou-
raged participation, from political action in competing groups to mobilization for
revolution, the Civil War, and both world wars.
Social justice is another value that is integral to the social work profession:
“Social workers promote social justice and social change” (Preamble, NASW Code
of Ethics, 2008). Social justice describes the level of fairness that exists in society.
The Social Work Dictionary (Barker, 2003) defines it as:
An ideal condition in which all members of society have the same basic rights, protec-
tion, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits. Implicit in this concept is the no-
tion that historical inequities should be acknowledged and remedied through specific
measures. (pp. 404–405)

Thus, religious and social values place importance on the principles of charity,
caring for others, government involvement, and civic responsibility. With such pos-
itive principles guiding the nation, why is the development of social welfare policy
so fraught with dissension? Why is it so difficult for people to agree on the best
way to help each other? The struggle for agreement on social welfare policy rests
with attitudes, the beliefs that underlie the principles of caring for others and


Americans support the values of helping those in need, contributing to charity, be-
ing socially caring, and participating as a citizen. Nevertheless, people view those
values differently. Box 1.6 outlines three general areas where social values conflict.
Do we think responsibility for people’s well-being is personal and private, or
should it fall under collective and public concern? Should we respond to social
needs as they occur, or should we take a long-term approach? Values are not fixed,
so people may opt for personal responsibility as the foremost solution for some is-
sues and collective attention for other issues. Values may change over time for the
nation as a whole or for some individuals. For example, suppose you believe
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 15


General Values—What Is Most Important?

Who do we view as responsible for people’s well-being?
Personal or Collective?
Where do we place responsibility for people’s well-being?
Private or Public?
When should social welfare interventions occur?
Immediate or Long-Term?

strongly in personal and private responsibility. Paying Social Security taxes would
be disturbing to your sense of what is important, your values. Years later, when
you face retirement, you may rethink your value of private responsibility and
welcome the collective aspects of Social Security benefits. Fluidity is the reality
(Box 1.6). Values can shift over time and in terms of the issue.
Behind these general values are powerful competing beliefs that lead to dis-
agreement. The author proposes that the struggles in society to achieve the afore-
mentioned values grow out of conflicting beliefs. The following 12 conflicting
beliefs can be found in responses to social problems and throughout the U.S. social
welfare system (see Figure 1.3). Each chapter of the book concludes with a discus-
sion of relevant conflicting values and beliefs.


Most Americans support the idea of helping people in need, as long as the people
are worthy of help. They must be seen as trying hard, willing to work if given the
chance, and grateful for any and all opportunities. The belief that there are deserv-
ing and undeserving people dates back to the colonial period (1700s) and is still
significant today in discussions of need. Early colonial laws considered widows, or-
phans, elderly people, and people with a physical disability as worthy of assistance.
The characteristic they shared was that they were in need through circumstances
beyond their control. That view persists today. In political speeches given in the
House of Representatives hours before the approval of the 1996 welfare reform
legislation, the overriding concern of lawmakers was self-sufficiency and serving
the truly needy (Segal & Kilty, 2003). If a person is perceived as being able to
work but still poor, then the belief is that the person is not worthy of assistance.
Distinguishing between who is deserving and who is undeserving may seem like a
clear and logical process. Any reasonable person should be able to decide who should
receive social welfare and who should not. However, the difference between who is
worthy and who is not is based on an individual’s view of the circumstances that led
to the need. What is missing from this perspective is the consideration of cause. For ex-
ample, is poverty the result of personal failure or of societal structures that create
16 Chapter 1

Undeserving—should be able to be Deserving—worthy of help

responsible for self
Personal Failure—conditions of need System Failure—conditions of need
brought on by individual’s failure brought on by economic, political, and
social conditions
Individual Responsibility—people should Social Responsibility—people are all
take care of themselves; no outside support responsible for each other; society should
care for all
Individual Change—adaptation by the Social Change—structural changes of
person society
Self-sufficiency—ability to care for oneself Social Support—receiving care and help
from others
Handout—charity Entitlement—earned right or access
Aid to Those We Know—inclined to help Aid to Strangers—willing to help people
when there is a personal relationship unknown to us
Religious and Faith-Based Practice— Separation of Church and State—
social services based in religious nonsectarian; no religious connection to
organizations and infused with religious social services
values and beliefs
Crisis response—mobilize only for a Prevention—provide services before there
critical event is a problem; services are ongoing and
Sympathy—sorrow for a person’s Empathy—identification with another
misfortune person’s life situation
Suspicion—wariness of person’s motives Trust—positive regard for person’s
Emotions—feelings Rationality—factual and dispassionate


barriers to resources? Should we focus on the individual or on society? The next pair
of conflicting beliefs relate more specifically to this dilemma.


Many people question a person who looks healthy but is receiving government as-
sistance: Why isn’t the person working? It is difficult not to immediately compare
your own ability to hold a job and earn enough to support yourself and your fam-
ily with another person’s inability to do so and therefore receive assistance without
working. Many people feel it is unfair and believe the person to be undeserving.
However, what is often lacking in understanding need in America is consideration
of the impact of economic, social, and political systems on access and opportunity.
Racism limits people’s opportunities. Women are treated differently than men.
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 17

Companies find it cost-effective to close plants and move, leaving hundreds of

workers without jobs. Many do not have the skills to quickly find another job.
Higher education and training are not available for all, so some young people do
not learn the skills that would help them get jobs. We must question whether these
are instances of personal failure or whether something is wrong with society’s so-
cial interactions, economic policies, or educational systems. This raises the next
question: Who is responsible for people’s well-being—each individual or society?


As has already been discussed, Americans are torn in their beliefs about who should
be responsible for people’s well-being. The belief that the individual is responsible
for his or her state in the world is strong, but so is the belief that the government
should step in and aid people when they are in need. This split in the public con-
sciousness plagues the development of social welfare policy. Although by definition
social welfare involves the general public, the form of that involvement is the subject
of debate. If a person believes strongly in individual responsibility, then that person
will see personal needs such as poverty, mental illness, and family breakdown as is-
sues that should be addressed by individual effort. For the person who believes
strongly in social responsibility, many of these problems are social issues that should
be addressed by public intervention. One’s beliefs in terms of responsibility will
shape the direction of social policy.
Who comes first, the individual or the community? This is the question under-
lying the individual versus social responsibility debate. Many cultures believe that
people are part of a collective, a larger group, and individuals are not the focus.
Other cultures emphasize individuality and the worth of each person over and
above the collective society. American tradition is firmly rooted in individualism,
and yet democracy calls for collective participation. The disparity between these
two beliefs gives rise to disagreements about approaches to social welfare.


If a person is a strong advocate of individual responsibility, then it is likely that when
social welfare policies and programs are called into play, he or she will emphasize
the individual. If the problem, for example, is unemployment, then the emphasis
will be on trying to get the unemployed person a job. If a person holds strong beliefs
about social responsibility, then he or she will focus on social change. The emphasis
will be on promoting the development of new jobs and general economic well-being
for the community.


Similar to the individual responsibility versus social responsibility debate is the de-
bate over where support should ultimately rest. Should we promote self-sufficiency
(i.e., individual support), or should we accept ongoing need addressed by social
support? Self-sufficiency stresses individualism and personal achievement, whereas
social support stresses collectivity. For some, the belief in social support is so strong
18 Chapter 1

that it may not matter why a person has a social need. They feel that the responsibil-
ity to others supercedes all and that we must take care of all people regardless of the
cause of their need.


Attitudes toward assistance are also fraught with conflict. Some believe that assis-
tance and social support are rights and—that people are entitled to a basic standard
of living. Often an entitlement is viewed as something that a person has earned and
therefore has a right to claim. The opposite belief is that assistance is given out by
those with the power and means to provide for people without power and in need
and is hence a “handout.” There is no stigma attached to service as entitlement
because the recipient is owed the service. There is stigma attached to service as a
handout because the recipient has not earned the service.


One pervasive characteristic of our society is the tendency to be more comfortable
and more inclined to help people we know, or feel we know, rather than help stran-
gers. Class differences in American society insulate people with wealth or even com-
fortable means from contact with people who are poor. What little contact they have
is typically not on a personal level. It usually takes place through the media or
through hierarchical relationships. Those with means are served in restaurants or
have their lawns mowed by those who can barely make ends meet. Racial divisions
are powerful in society. People of different races often do not get to know each
other. Thus, when one racial group is called on to support social services, they are
often asked to help people from another racial group. They may be reluctant to do
so. This reluctance has proved to be a challenge in American society.



As discussed earlier under religious values, the mixing of religion and social welfare
is highly contested. Although the constitutional prohibition is strong, there is much
debate about the appropriate role of religious organizations in the care and support
of people. Recently, there has been more emphasis from politicians on the provision
of social welfare services by faith-based institutions. This question will continue to
influence the development of social welfare policy.


The outpouring of relief and donations after the attack on the World Trade Center
and Pentagon on 9/11 was overwhelming. So much blood was donated that there
was a surplus, and some had to be destroyed. On an average day at most blood
banks, there is a shortage of blood and never a surplus. It is typical for people to
mobilize for a tangible crisis. The need for prevention, on the other hand, is usually
invisible and not compelling and is therefore much more difficult to enact.
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 19


Usually sympathy and empathy are considered the same emotion: caring for others.
But these responses are distinctly different when applied to social well-being. Both
responses involve the ability and willingness to share feelings with another. How-
ever, sympathy involves compassion, which is sorrow for someone’s misfortune
and a desire to alleviate his or her suffering. Empathy requires identifying oneself
with another, thereby entering into the other’s experience. Empathy does not pre-
suppose misfortune as does sympathy. Although an empathic person will undoubt-
edly feel another’s pain if the conditions of the person’s life are miserable, his or
her perspective is larger. An empathic person takes into consideration the external
conditions that may contribute to the person’s misfortune. Sympathy, with its con-
current compassion, typically creates a hierarchy in which those who are more for-
tunate help those who are more unfortunate. Empathy suggests that any of us
could find ourselves in the same situation as the other, given life events, and does
not lead to a hierarchy of giver and receiver.


Giving a person money for necessities involves trust. If that person should instead
use the money to buy drugs, the giver feels exploited and suspicious of how the re-
ceiver is living his or her life. Recipients are free to make bad choices, but when
they misuse resources provided by others, the givers feel as though there has been
a breach of trust.


Facts and dispassionate analysis are keys to rational thinking. Should all social is-
sues be approached using only a rational perspective? Do emotions play a role?
Shouldn’t human beings have emotions when they are considering issues as painful
as poverty, violence, and poor health? Public policy makers struggle with develop-
ing rational, sensible policies and policies that appeal to the emotions. When creat-
ing laws that govern treatment of the American flag, for example, legislators often
cite the flag’s symbolic meaning rather than refer to it as merely a beautiful piece of
cloth. This example demonstrates that beliefs and the emotional meaning of a sym-
bol are more powerful than the construction of an object, which is a rational act.


Values and beliefs tend to flow together. Although people may take differing posi-
tions on concerns, beliefs tend to follow a general value framework. Beliefs reflect
values. Figure 1.4 outlines the beliefs that support specific values.
How does knowing that we are a nation with conflicting values and beliefs help
in understanding the social welfare system? Rather than becoming polarized by the
traditional divisions among policy makers and citizens—Republican versus Demo-
crat, liberal versus conservative, right wing versus left wing—we should strive to un-
derstand the belief systems that guide our views. We may feel torn between two
conflicting values, sometimes believing strongly in one and sometimes in the other.
20 Chapter 1

Personal failure System failure
Individual responsibility Social responsibility
Individual change Social change
Self-sufficiency Social support
Aid to those we know Aid to strangers
Religious Separation of church and state
Sympathy Empathy


Undeserving Deserving
Personal failure System failure
Individual responsibility Social responsibility
Individual change Social change
Self-sufficiency Social support
Aid to those we know Aid to strangers
Religious Separation of church and state
Sympathy Empathy
Emotions Rationality


Undeserving Deserving
Personal failure System failure
Handout Entitlement
Crisis response Prevention
Sympathy Empathy
Suspicion Trust
Emotions Rationality


For example, we want government involvement in some things and privacy in others.
Usually when political groups differ, they are arguing about beliefs. The preceding list
covers most of the disagreements in the public policy arena. Figure 1.5 outlines some
of the typical beliefs that support and oppose government involvement. If a person
holds beliefs that are in the first column, he or she is more likely to expect individuals
to be responsible for the conditions of life. Rather than argue for more government
programs, we need to address these important ideas and explore the meaning of these
beliefs. When we clarify values and beliefs and understand people’s positions, we can
better develop social policies. And even if we cannot agree with all beliefs, exploring
them helps us to more accurately discuss the true conflicts in social discourse.
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 21

Unlikely to Support Government Social More Likely to Support Government

Programs Social Programs
Undeserving—should be able to be Deserving—worthy of help
responsible for self
Personal Failure—conditions of need System Failure—conditions of need
brought on by individual’s failure brought on by economic, political, and
social conditions
Individual responsibility—people should Social Responsibility—people are all
take care of themselves; no outside support responsible for each other; society should
care for all
Helping Those We Know—inclined to Helping Strangers—willing to help people
help when there is a personal relationship unknown to us
Crisis—mobilize only for a critical event Prevention—provide services before there
is a problem; ongoing and comprehensive
Individual Change—adaptation by the Social Change—structural changes of
person society


Throughout the rest of this book, the relevant values and beliefs will be discussed to
better understand the social welfare system in America.


The population of the United States includes more than 300 million people. This
makes this country larger than most nations; only China and India have a larger
population. The United States is almost ten times more populous than Canada,
five times more populous than the United Kingdom and France, three times more
populous than Mexico, twice as populous as Russia, and 30 times more populous
than Sweden. We are a diverse nation, and that diversity is changing. Census data
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2007) reveal that we are aging. In 1980 the median age was
30 years, it grew to more than 36 years of age in 2006, and it is projected to in-
crease to 39 years of age by 2050 when 26 percent of the population is expected
to be over 60 years old compared to 16 percent in 2000. Racial composition is
also changing. In 2000, 19 percent of the population was categorized as people of
color and by 2015 that is expected to increase to 37 percent. The presidential and
vice presidential candidates of 2008 reflected those changes. The election of the
first person of color as president in over 230 years of United States government re-
flects those changes. In terms of social welfare policy, it portends an exciting time
of change. Public policy reflects the needs and concerns of social and economic
groups. For example, with the aging of the population, programs and services that
address the needs of people as they age will most likely become more pronounced
in policy debates. Already changes in racial composition are taking precedence as
in the discussions surrounding immigration. Following social welfare requires keen
22 Chapter 1

awareness of social trends. Shifts in population typically influence public policy dis-
cussions, often serving as the catalyst for social change.

Changing social and economic conditions coupled with the ways people’s beliefs
and values influence their interpretations of these events influence the development
of social welfare policies and programs. Part of the belief system in the United
States is that people have freedom of choice and that is what distinguishes Ameri-
cans from so many citizens of other nations. Americans treasure their freedom and
consider the United States to be the most open and free country in the world. That
belief is so deep that they rarely question it. Yet, is it true that all Americans are
free to choose how they lead their lives? Within the framework of lawful behavior,
do we have choice?
To have free choice in the public domain, it means that:
All options are open and available.
Each person is aware of those options.
Each person fully understands all the options, as well as the qualifications
needed to participate in the options.
Each person understands the consequences, impact, and possible outcomes of
all choices.
Sufficient resources are available for all to take advantage of all choices.
Sufficient support is available to sustain a person in his or her choice.
People have the abilities, skills, self-confidence, realistic assessment, and moti-
vation needed to take advantage of all choices.
Although some people may never have all of the pieces of the framework when
they make choices, some people will have more pieces than others. The more pieces
you have, the better suited you are to take advantage of free choice. In fact, these
aspects of free choice are the basis of social justice. The reality in America is that
for poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised people, choice is often not a reality. The
result is social injustice. Social welfare policies and programs are one of the ways
that society tries to provide more choices for more people and give them the skills
necessary to take advantage of those choices.
You may be asking whether social welfare policies and programs make a dif-
ference. Are they worth the social and economic investment? The answer is that
social welfare programs do help and make a difference. This book is based on that
premise. For example, more than 20 years ago, Lisbeth Schorr (1988) put together
a volume describing numerous social programs for children that had proved to be
highly successful. She concluded that “we know how to organize health programs,
family agencies, child care, and schools to strengthen families and to prevent casu-
alties at the transition from childhood to adulthood. We know how to intervene to
reduce the rotten outcomes of adolescence and to help break the cycle that reaches
into succeeding generations” (p. 294). Years later, Jonathan Crane (2000) used rig-
orous research techniques to identify successful social welfare programs. He
Social Welfare Policy and Underlying Values 23

concluded that “a number of programs have had a substantial, positive impact on

the lives of the people they have served and have benefited society as a whole”
(p. 1). He writes further that “although there have been many disappointments in
the past 35 years, we have learned a tremendous amount. If we let this knowledge
go to waste, then the money spent on programs over the years will have gone for
naught. If instead, we capitalize on the handful of successes that we have worked
so hard to develop, then all the money, the failures, and the disappointments will
have been worthwhile after all” (p. 40).
Understanding what works and what does not work creates better social policy
and programs. This book provides the foundation and guidelines you need to under-
stand the U.S. social welfare system, the public policies and programs that contribute
to it, and the underlying values and beliefs that shape social welfare policies.

Key Terms
social welfare recipient social welfare system universality
social welfare policy value residual social welfare policy selectivity
social welfare programs belief institutional social welfare policy social justice

Questions for Discussion

1. How would you describe what our social 4. Why do you think it is important to study
welfare system is to a friend who is not tak- social welfare policy?
ing this class? 5. Find data on population growth in the
2. What is the difference between a provider United States between 1980 and today. How
and a recipient in the U.S. social welfare has the composition of our population
system? changed and how do you think that might
3. Explain the difference between a value and a influence social welfare policy?
belief. Give an example of each.

1. Based on your initial understanding of social which are residual? Can you determine
welfare policy, what policies and programs which are universal and which are selective?
do you think benefit you? Why? Write these 3. Consider the values and beliefs identified in
down and put them away until the end of this chapter. Where do your own values and
the course. At that time, look at what you beliefs fit? Again, write down where you
wrote and consider how your thinking and think you fit in terms of the values and be-
understanding may have changed over the liefs listed in this chapter. At the end of the
course. Are there different social welfare course, review what you wrote and consider
policies and programs that you can identify how your views may or may not have
as beneficial to you? changed. Why?
2. Look at your list of policies and programs. 4. Read through a newspaper or a news
Can you identify which are institutional and magazine such as Time or Newsweek. How
24 Chapter 1

many articles are related to social welfare 5. Visit the web site of a local or national
issues? How are the issues presented? Does elected politician. Can you identify values
the discussion seem relevant to social work and beliefs held by this elected official? How
practice? How do these issues affect you, do you think those values and beliefs might
your family, and your friends? influence his or her policy-making?

Abramovitz, M. (2001). Everyone is still on welfare: National Association of Social Workers. (2008).
The role of redistribution in social policy. Social NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.
Work 46(4):297–308. Oxford American Dictionary of Current English.
Barker, R. L. (2003). The social work dictionary, (1999). New York: Oxford University Press.
5th ed. Washington, DC: National Association of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Social Workers. (2007). Trends in political values and core
Crane, J. (ed.). (2000). Social programs that work. attitudes: 1987–2007. Washington, DC: Author.
New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Schorr, L. B. (1988). Within our reach: Breaking the
Degeneffe, C. E. (2003). What is Catholic about cycle of disadvantage. New York: Anchor Press
Catholic Charities? Social Work 48(3):374–383. Doubleday.
Dionne, E. J. (2008). Culture wars: The era of Segal, E. A., & Kilty, K. M. (2003). Political
Americans voting on the basis of ‘moral values’ is promises for welfare reform. Journal of Poverty
over. Washington Post National Weekly Edition 7(1/2):51–68.
25(22):25. Skocpol, T. (1999). How Americans became civic.
Eck, D. L. (2002). A new religious America. San In T. Skocpol & M. P. Fiorina (eds.), Civic
Francisco: HarperCollins. engagement in American democracy. Washington,
Gintis, H. (2001). Foreword: Beyond selfishness in DC: Brookings Institution.
modeling human behavior. In R. M. Nesse (ed.), U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). Statistical abstract of the
Evolution and the capacity for commitment. New United States: 2008. 127th ed. Washington, DC:
York: Russell Sage Foundation. U.S. Government Printing Office.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in Wagner, D. (1999). What’s love got to do with it?
America’s schools. New York: Crown. A critical look at American charity. New York:
National Education Association. (2007). New Press.
Rankings and estimates. Washington, DC: Wilensky, H. I., & Lebeaux, C. N. (1965). Industrial
NEA Research. society and social welfare. New York: Free Press.



AP Photo

26 Chapter 2

Today’s social welfare policies have been shaped by historical events and molded
by changing social values and beliefs. Exploring the history of social welfare policy
in the United States can help us better understand today’s social welfare system.
The political system of a democratic government rests on the principle that people
or their elected representatives make policy decisions. The majority usually decides elec-
tions and makes decisions. In the United States, that majority mirrors those who con-
trol the most resources. Social welfare policy evolves in ways that reflect the majority
culture and its values. That majority has usually been concerned with maintaining the
status quo rather than risking social upheaval. Examples of efforts to maintain the
status quo can be seen in the treatment of women and nondominant groups. Social
welfare policy in this country has tended to reinforce traditional family ethics, which
kept women at home (Abramovitz, 1996) and restricted nondominant people and
immigrants from full economic participation (Patterson, 2000).
In spite of the overriding goal of protecting the status quo and maintaining
control for the majority, change has occurred from colonial times to the present.
Some social welfare policy changes were dramatic and far-reaching. Others were
slow and gradual. Because the social welfare system reflects economic fluctuations,
political changes, and shifting values and beliefs, it is important to examine the sys-
tem within the context of history.


Social welfare—the concern with societal well-being—dates back to the time of the
earliest European settlers. The colonial period was a time of great uncertainty. To
the Europeans who first landed in this country, North America did not seem to
possess established social, political, or economic systems. The settlers lacked aware-
ness of native cultures that had been in existence for centuries. The New World of
the European settlers was actually a place of thriving, populated communities.


At the time of the earliest European contact with nation reflected a racially compartmentalized
North America, there were no “American Indians.” worldview that would come to guide the colonial
The aboriginal inhabitants of North America en- policies of Europeans for nearly five centuries on
countered by European travelers spoke a myriad as many continents. These policies divided human
of languages; possessed a wide variety of cultures; populations into two camps: those who were civi-
displayed a broad diversity of social, economic, and lized and those who needed to be civilized; those
political organization; and had no conception of manifestly destined to rule and those in need of
themselves as a single “race,” group, or people. rule. Finally, the uniformity implied by the common
The common label “Indians” in fact told more about label “Indian” reflected the singleness of purpose in
the visitors than about the natives. First, the label European, and later American, social, economic,
revealed an unfounded geographic optimism about political, and military dealings with the various in-
the discovery of a route to the East Indies; if this digenous communities they confronted: an unre-
was India, these must surely be Indians. More im- lenting demand for native land and resources
portant, this strategy of simplistic collective desig- (Nagel, 1997, p. 3).
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 27

Many indigenous people lived in North America (see Box 2.1). The population is
estimated to have been as high as 18 million before 1492. In the 130 years after that
date, 95 percent of the indigenous people died from diseases brought by Europeans
and from conflicts that occurred as white settlement expanded (Mann, 2002).
The settlers who came to America during the late 1600s and early 1700s either
ignored cultures and mores that were not their own or found ways to destroy those
cultures. Consequently, the earliest settlers relied on laws from their countries of
origin in creating their first social welfare system. The earliest form of legislated so-
cial welfare policy came with the importation of the Elizabethan Poor Laws (Tratt-
ner, 1999). Passed in 1601 in England, the Elizabethan Poor Laws embodied the
first public legislation outlining a public response to social welfare needs. As the
feudal system changed in England, the problem of what to do about people in dire
need surfaced as a public concern. With people leaving the countryside, where they
were under the rule and care of feudal lords, towns became populated by people
without sufficient resources to survive. Feudal lords, in power through birth, mar-
riage, and at the behest of the monarchy, were responsible for a geographic area
and all the people who lived there. Towns tended to be separate, and became a
place where people from the countryside came to try and improve their economic
well-being. Arriving poor, they put a strain on the local towns. The Elizabethan
laws were passed primarily out of necessity, to designate a system of care for the
poor and indigent—not because of a commitment to social well-being. Landowners
and church leaders were not able to care for all those in economic need.
A number of key components characterized the Elizabethan Poor Laws (Axinn &
Stern, 2008). Landowners and lawmakers of the time categorized need by distinguish-
ing between those deserving of aid, the “worthy poor,” and those not deserving, the
“unworthy poor.” The worthy poor included widows, orphans, the elderly, and peo-
ple with disabilities. These groups were viewed as worthy because their circumstances
of need were perceived to be beyond their control. The unworthy poor were able-
bodied single adults and unmarried women with out-of-wedlock children. These
groups were unworthy because either they could work and were not doing so or
they did not follow the expected social norms. These distinctions are important be-
cause they permeate the U.S. social welfare system to this day and are reflected in
the belief of “deserving versus undeserving,” as described in Chapter 1.
In addition to categorizing people in need, the Elizabethan Poor Laws institu-
tionalized structures that remain a part of the social welfare system. The Elizabe-
than Poor Laws stipulated that the economic support of those in need must first
come from within the family. Only when the family could not afford to care for a
person did local authorities take public responsibility for his or her care. Another
stipulation was that the person in need had to be a legal resident of the community.
In this way, the generosity of the local government would be provided for commu-
nity residents rather than outsiders. Funding for public assistance came from
money collected from local residents who could afford to pay. The tendency to
support people we know rather than strangers continues to be strong to this day.
The Elizabethan Poor Laws established a single relief system coordinated by
civil authorities. The system was intended to provide support for those who de-
served assistance. It was not seen as a way to eradicate poverty. The colonists be-
lieved strongly in the work ethic. Those who could work must work. They also
28 Chapter 2

believed that jobs were available for anyone willing to work and that hard work
would lead to moral uprightness and individual well-being. In other words, they
valued self-sufficiency more than social support.
These earliest social welfare laws set the stage for all social welfare policy to
come. In summary, the major principles of the Elizabethan Poor Laws included
(1) a distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor, (2) the idea that the family
is responsible first and foremost for the care of its members and that only after the
family cannot provide support will local authorities intervene, (3) the stipulation
that only residents of a community were eligible to receive assistance, and (4) the
provision that assistance would be given only when dire necessity required it and
would be terminated when the recipient achieved the ultimate goal of employment
or marriage to someone who was employed. Poverty was seen as an individual
shortcoming, not a structural or societal failure. One key outcome of the colonial
period was the belief that social welfare was a partnership between private care
and public aid.
The American South was similar to the North in its adherence to the Elizabe-
than Poor Laws, but it differed in regard to its economic structure. The agricultural
economy of the South relied on large numbers of laborers. African slaves provided
an inexpensive source of labor. From the 1600s through the late 1700s, almost
600,000 Europeans came to America and 300,000 Africans were brought here as
slaves (Daniels, 1990). Almost all of the Africans lived in southern states. The colo-
nists from Europe, most of whom were British, controlled the economic and social
order of colonial America. By 1661, the South had institutionalized slavery. The
care of slaves was the responsibility of their owners. The Elizabethan Poor Laws
were not applicable to slaves, who had no legal claim to social welfare support
from local governments. As in the North, these policies set the foundation for the
public response to social welfare needs for years to come.
During the colonial period, America was perceived as a land of abundant re-
sources with plenty of room for growth. The native people, like the African slaves,
were regarded by the colonists as nonpersons with no rights to the land or re-
sources (Nagel, 1997). The colonists considered American Indians to be a nuisance
blocking the growth of the colonial empire (Nabokov, 1991). The differences in
culture between the colonists and the native peoples were significant. Misunder-
standing and mistrust between the two groups lasted for centuries. For the Ameri-
can Indian tribes, the white colonists, in the words of a member of the Santee,
. . . a heartless nation. They have made some of their people servants . . . We have
never believed in keeping slaves, but it seems that these Washichu [white people]
do . . . The greatest object of their lives seems to be to acquire possessions—to be rich.
They desire to possess the whole world. For thirty years they were trying to entice us
to sell them our land. Finally the outbreak [of illness] gave them all, and we have been
driven away from our beautiful country. (Nabokov, 1991, p. 22)

Such differences in beliefs and the success of the settlers in pushing the native
peoples westward caused the colonies to grow and prosper. Because of economic
growth and a rich base of natural resources, the belief that poverty was inevitable
or structural never became part of the national consciousness. In fact, because of
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 29

the abundant resources and expansion, poverty was viewed as a personal misfor-
tune, not a public responsibility.


The policies and practices of colonial America serve as the foundation for the U.S.
social welfare system and beliefs. The strong values of work, individualism, and ag-
gressive expansion blended to create an ongoing American way of life. This way of
life promotes economic gain and individual achievement. Americans value the en-
trepreneurial and adventurous spirit of early explorers and settlers. Also, the ac-
claimed superiority of Anglo-European colonists over indigenous cultures and
African slaves set the stage for racial conflicts that continue today.


The colonial period gave rise to a number of the conflicting beliefs that influence
U.S. social welfare policies of today. Most significant is the emphasis on distin-
guishing between those who are deserving of aid and those who are not, the wor-
thy and unworthy poor. The emphasis on the individual reflected the colonial
values of individual responsibility, self-sufficiency as the preferred way of living,
and the work ethic. Also codified in the Elizabethan Poor Laws was the tendency
to help those we know rather than strangers. These beliefs permeate the social pol-
icies and programs that constitute the current social welfare system.


After the American Revolution in 1776 and the formation of the United States,
economic, political, and social forces changed the face of the nation. The economic
structure of the country changed from primarily agrarian to primarily industrial.
More and more immigrants from European countries settled in America. With
growing immigration and industrialization, workers in search of employment grav-
itated toward cities, and the America of the 1800s became more urbanized.
The social welfare system in the United States changed with the increase in
industrialization, immigration, urbanization, and western expansion. Although the
fundamental precepts of the Elizabethan Poor Laws were still accepted, local au-
thorities were facing greater social problems and need. Conditions such as mental
illness and disabilities and the plight of orphaned children seemed impossible to
solve through distribution of aid to individuals. One solution was the building of
residential institutions to care for such people (Leiby, 1978). Institutions were be-
lieved to be the way of eliminating social problems through rehabilitation of poor
people and others deemed as having social problems and in turn setting examples
of proper ways to live (Rothman, 1971). The institutions, also known as indoor
relief, included hospitals, almshouses for the poor, and orphanages for children
(Axinn & Stern, 2008).
Colonial and pre–Civil War America reflected a strong religious background,
which greatly influenced how early Americans viewed social problems (Jansson,
2009). The dominant ideology was a religious moralistic perspective that regarded
30 Chapter 2

individual behavior as the root of most problems. This perspective reinforced the
emphasis on correcting behavior through rehabilitation and life in institutions. Al-
though the goal of institutional living was to rehabilitate people, the reality dif-
fered. Institutions often became places where people who were destitute or
suffering from mental illness were warehoused, and no efforts at rehabilitation
were undertaken. The conditions were often substandard, and inmates were treated


The use of institutions in caring for people became an established social service ap-
proach during this period. Care from sources other than families and friends was
accepted as a legitimate way to treat social problems. In addition, although the sep-
aration of church and state was outlined in the Constitution, religious organiza-
tions played a role in caring for people.


The concept of rugged individualism permeated the society of the 1800s. America
was still seen as a nation rich in resources, and opportunities for hard work were
perceived to be plentiful. Therefore, anyone not working or poor was regarded
with suspicion. Poverty was viewed as an individual condition and, hence, a per-
sonal failure, not a societal failure. This belief reinforced the value of economic
However, the concept of available work for every person who wanted it was,
and continues to be, a distortion of historical reality (Katz, 1986). As has been
true during many periods of history, viable employment for unskilled or semiskilled
workers was not universally available. Although there have always been rich and
poor people in American society, the industrialization of the 1800s created broader
differences and a greater disparity in resources between those at the top and those
at the bottom.


The Civil War awakened the new nation to social unrest, regional nationalism, and
economic disparity. The difference between the North and the South was not sim-
ply a matter of abolition versus institutionalization of slavery. The industrialized
North had an economic base that differed from the more agrarian economy of the
South. The Civil War and its aftermath created a tremendous need for relief efforts.
As a result of poor sanitary conditions, public health emerged as a social welfare
concern, as did the need for national government intervention.
For the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government made a brief
foray into providing social welfare benefits. Before the Civil War, all social welfare
programs fell under the control of private charity groups and local governments.
With the magnitude of the Civil War and the North’s successful efforts to abolish
slavery came the postwar need to provide for those displaced by the war. In 1865,
the new federal government established the Freedman’s Bureau, which provided
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 31

temporary relief for newly freed slaves, managed abandoned and confiscated prop-
erty, helped to reunite families, provided medical supplies and food rations, and es-
tablished institutions such as hospitals, schools, and orphanages (Trattner, 1999).
The Freedman’s Bureau was placed in the War Department, an action that en-
sured that the bureau would remain temporary. It was disbanded in 1872 (Jansson,
2009). The development of the bureau raised the question of what role the federal
government should take in the creation of social welfare policy and the provision
of services. The bureau was seen only as a postwar effort and not as a way of alter-
ing the social or economic structure that had given rise to the Civil War. It pro-
vided the minimum services needed immediately after the war.
Although slavery officially ended with the Civil War, racial differences re-
mained deeply embedded in American society. African Americans were technically
free people but were still subject to the will of the majority. Even many northern
abolitionists who had fought for the end of slavery perceived African Americans
as morally inferior to whites (Jansson, 2009). Forcing people to leave their native
land and culture and then depriving them of any chance to develop their own re-
sources and a new culture set the stage for long-standing racial imbalances. How
could newly freed African Americans begin to achieve the social, political, and eco-
nomic success that the founders of this country had secured for themselves almost
200 years before? Early settlers had access to land and resources, and by the
1800s controlled the political and social economy. Even with the end of the Civil
War, African Americans were not included in those systems. Freed slaves had no
belongings, no land, and no education, and therefore had no chance to integrate
into the mainstream society. What institutional slavery accomplished before the
Civil War, social values and structural systems maintained after the war.
Women fared a bit better after the Civil War. The war had drawn women out
of their homes and into the social structure to a greater degree. Women found a
place for themselves in social welfare services and public health careers. Following
the war, the country experienced enhanced economic wealth and an improved stan-
dard of living. Women from families who were economically well off found oppor-
tunities to do social welfare service work outside the home.
During the years following the Civil War, Anglo-Americans decimated the re-
sources and culture of American Indians. Thousands of miles of railways opened
the way for westward expansion, and white settlers took the land as they moved
across the country. In 1887, the Dawes Act destroyed Native American culture by
dividing native lands among individuals. Needing resources, many Native Ameri-
cans sold their land for little money or were cheated out of it. Ninety million acres
were transferred to whites, and 90,000 American Indians were left homeless. Also
in 1887, the government provided funds for missionary groups to create boarding
schools. American Indian children were forced to attend these schools and conse-
quently lost contact with their families, communities, and culture (Day, 2006).


The greatest contribution of this time to social welfare was the involvement of the
federal government in the delivery of social services. The idea of the highest level of
government stepping in to address social problems was new to the nation.
32 Chapter 2

Although it was a short-lived effort, it left an indelible mark on the social welfare
system. Also, the impact of the Civil War was to be felt for generations to come.
The rift between the North and the South, and the ill feelings it left, continue to af-
fect social beliefs today. The aftereffects of slavery lingered for over 100 years, and
the economic, social, and political separations between whites and African Ameri-
cans are still evident today.


Disproportionate economic growth, renewal of immigration, increased industriali-
zation, urbanization, and western expansion characterized the period from the
1870s through the beginning of the 1900s. The industrial development fostered by
the war laid the foundation for postwar expansion and growth in individual wealth
(Axinn & Stern, 2008). It also set the foundation for intensified economic dispar-
ity, poverty, regional differences, and racial strife. The high level of unemployment
at the end of the 1800s challenged the American belief in individualism and the
availability of work for anyone who wanted it (Bremner, 1956). People began to
accept the possibility that there might be structural reasons beyond the control of
the individual that contributed to poverty. Societal structure and system failure, in-
stead of personal failure, were seen as possible contributors to poverty.
Severe bouts of economic depression, particularly during the late 1800s, gave
rise to a tremendous need for social welfare intervention and recognition of the
large-scale needs of many population groups. Social responsibility began to emerge.
Out of this period came the seeds of government-supported social services and fed-
eral social welfare policy.


The late 1800s and early 1900s witnessed two opposite but related trends: eco-
nomic growth and increased poverty. Urban areas grew tremendously, and industry
expanded. Immigrants were hired to fill dangerous and low-paying jobs, and
wealth became concentrated in the hands of the few who were at the top. Poverty
was prevalent among industrial workers, immigrants, and rural southern African
Americans (Wenocur & Reisch, 1989). The wide schism between the “haves” and
“have-nots” produced great social need. Change was rapid, and the social pro-
blems that surfaced were far beyond the capabilities of the existing private
The growing disparity between rich and poor fueled political and social dis-
satisfaction that in turn gave rise to a new political movement. This period, the
progressive era, witnessed a shift in social welfare policy and programs from fam-
ily and private responsibility to community and government responsibility. Unlike
during the expansionary years after the Civil War, economic conditions at the
turn of the century worsened, and the nation began to regard problems such as
poverty as social concerns rather than individual problems (Trattner, 1999). This
new concern included closer examination of the structural forces that led to per-
sonal misfortune.
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 33

Among the numerous social problems during this period were terrible labor
conditions, particularly for women and children; poor health, especially among
those living in crowded urban tenement areas; lack of understanding of mental
health needs, which led to mistreatment of those deemed to be “insane”; poor
treatment of children and lack of educational opportunities; and overall poverty
among a significant portion of the population.
Social welfare programs and the provision of services during the progressive
era were embodied in two distinct movements: the Charity Organization Societies
(COS) and the settlement movement. The role of these movements in the foun-
dation of the profession of social work is discussed in Chapter 4. Briefly, COS and
settlements dominated the social service system of the progressive era.


Modeled after groups in London, the first Charity Organization was established in
1877 in Buffalo, New York. COS workers tried to eliminate poverty by discovering
its causes among individuals and then removing those causes from society (Erick-
son, 1987). Objective techniques stressing scientific methods were considered the
best way to solve the problem of poverty. Through coordinated relief giving and
modeling of appropriate behavior by “friendly visitors,” families would receive re-
lief without duplication of services and would be shown how to live a respectable
life. Those most involved in COS believed that poverty was rooted in the personal
character of the poor person (Germain & Hartman, 1980).

The settlement movement was influential at the turn of the century. The work of
the settlements was based on a completely different perspective than that of the
COS regarding the causes of poverty and social need. The settlement movement of-
ficially began in this country in 1887 with the establishment of the Neighborhood
Guild in New York City. It was based on a similar model in England, the famous
Toynbee Hall (Reid, 1981). The philosophy behind the settlement movement was
that social workers should live among the people to best serve communities. Estab-
lished as neighborhood centers where all were welcome, settlements served both as
housing for settlement workers and meeting places for local people. The settlement
movement philosophy combined the achievement of individual growth with satisfy-
ing social relations and social responsibility. Unlike the narrow individual focus of
the COS, the settlements emphasized community and society. The settlements held
a holistic perspective of the person in society and regarded a person’s inner well-
being as inseparable from external forces. The settlement philosophy held that peo-
ple could become full citizens through participation in social systems, including the
family, neighborhood, ethnic groups, and place of employment.


The progressive era witnessed tremendous political change. For the first time in
America, industrial workers began to organize and demand better working
34 Chapter 2

conditions and wages. Although management was still in control of production,

unions were organized for numerous trades and provided newfound strength for
workers. Women found a place in the changing economic and political environ-
ment, becoming employed in social welfare services and seeking increased political
involvement. The suffrage movement gained public attention and culminated in
1920 with passage of the constitutional amendment awarding women the right to
vote. Women fought for and achieved access to higher education and professions
(Boulding, 1992).
African Americans did not fare as well as other groups during the progressive
years. White workers, women, and children gained rights, but most of the freed
slaves of the South remained in poverty and were excluded from political and so-
cial realms. Many became tenant farmers, economically enslaved to their former
owners. Some moved to the North to find jobs in urban centers. Although life in
the North was better than life in the South, northern African Americans were
barred from union membership and did not benefit from the progress of white
workers (Jansson, 2009). The newly created social welfare services were not avail-
able to African Americans, so they created a separate network of services to meet
their needs. Although the National Urban League in 1910 and the National Associ-
ation for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1912 were established
(Axinn & Stern, 2008), racial divisions and hierarchies remained firmly rooted in
In spite of political change and progress, the underlying economic and social
structure of the United States remained intact. The severe economic depressions of
the turn of the century gave way to a resurgence of social stability. World War I
brought a sense of common purpose to the nation, put people to work, and halted
immigration, giving the country time to absorb the people of diverse cultures that
had flocked to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1920s the nation
was relatively prosperous and the social changes of the progressive era had slowed.
“Old American values” resurfaced, and a return to majority conservatism domi-
nated (Daniels, 1990, p. 281).


Social welfare policy still remained in the hands of private charities and localities.
The involvement of religious and faith-based groups in the delivery of social ser-
vices called into question the separation of church and state. The federal govern-
ment was not yet a provider of services, although stronger seeds of federal
involvement in social welfare had been sown during the progressive era. The fed-
eral government had passed legislation regulating work, protecting women and
children, placing restrictions on factory owners, and protecting American work-
ers. A shift in values from individual responsibility to social responsibility created
a foundation for believing in social support in addition to self-sufficiency. Al-
though emphasis was still placed on each person’s abilities, there was growing
awareness that the larger society had some role in the care of those who were less
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 35


Economic instability and depression were remote concerns during the 1920s. The
“Roaring Twenties” were years of economic prosperity and extravagant living. Cer-
tainly there were poor people, but their problems were geographically and socially
confined. Those in political power and those who controlled industry remained
oblivious to the needs of the poor. Much of the population was living beyond their
means, buying on credit and saving little or nothing. Market speculation and fraudu-
lent stock deals were common. Shrewd but shady business dealings that resulted in
profit were viewed as acceptable. There was a general feeling that anyone who
worked hard and had some business savvy could “make it” economically.
The stock market crash of October 1929 brought an abrupt end to the nation’s
strong faith in the market system and the prosperity of the 1920s. The warning
signs of extended credit, little savings, and market speculation had gone unheeded.
The nation’s social structure and charitable organizations were totally unprepared
to meet the incredible social needs and demands of Americans during the Great
Depression of the 1930s. The economic changes were staggering: in 1929 almost
1.6 million people were unemployed; in 1931, 8 million were unemployed; and by
1933 almost 13 million were out of work—more than 25 percent of the civilian
labor force (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975). In addition, the gross national prod-
uct fell from $103 billion in 1929 to $56 billion in 1933 (U.S. Bureau of the Census,
1975). Millions of families were impoverished because of the widespread unemploy-
ment of the main breadwinner.
The shock of the Great Depression paved the way for the election of Franklin
Delano Roosevelt to the presidency. The nation was in the depths of severe eco-
nomic destitution and ready for a new leader with new ideas.
One of the factors that made Roosevelt a great leader was that his beliefs so neatly co-
incided with popular values in the thirties...What was good, decent, fair, and just—
what was “right”—was also what a majority of people wanted and, hence, what was
expedient. (McElvaine, 1993, p. 325)

Roosevelt had a genuine concern for others, a noblesse oblige combined with his
understanding of struggle based on his own experience with polio. He believed
that the Depression was the result of factors that could be changed through federal
action. His policies, referred to as the New Deal, were designed to reverse the eco-
nomic misfortunes of the nation.
The Social Security Act of 1935 was the most significant federal legislation to
develop out of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts. It repre-
sented a major change in the country’s approach to social welfare policies and pro-
grams. Although a number of smaller federal efforts were undertaken during the
early 1930s, the groundwork for passage of the Social Security Act was set from
three efforts: the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), the Civilian Conservation
Corps (CCC), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (Axinn & Stern,
2008; Trattner, 1999).
FERA was the first federal economic relief agency to be established since the
Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War. The magnitude of poverty was so great
36 Chapter 2

that many agreed that the federal government needed to be the direct provider of
relief to local public agencies through which individuals would receive aid. The re-
lief was intended to be temporary, available only until people became employed.
By 1933, the creation and provision of jobs were the dominant goals of the so-
cial welfare policies under the New Deal. The CCC and the WPA were created to
develop employment for those on relief. The WPA provided 8 million government
jobs ranging from heavy construction work to playing in orchestras (Axinn &
Stern, 2008). WPA projects included the building of post offices, schools, and gov-
ernment buildings. The CCC provided employment for thousands of young men,
who worked on conservation projects, including reforestation and flood control
(Trattner, 1999).
The Roosevelt administration planned to use FERA to provide direct relief and
the WPA and CCC to provide temporary employment through the worst of the De-
pression. Once basic relief had been achieved, permanent solutions were needed.
Two key advisors to the president at this time were both social workers: Harry
Hopkins and Frances Perkins. Harry Hopkins, born in Iowa, started his social
work career as a Settlement House worker in New York City. He went on to
work as an advocate for the poor and served in the New York State Bureau of
Family Rehabilitation and Relief. Hopkins served as the director of FERA and
acted as a personal advisor to Roosevelt. Frances Perkins, the first woman ap-
pointed to a presidential cabinet position, served as the secretary of labor through-
out the Roosevelt administration. Frances Perkins had begun her career as a public
investigator of labor conditions and was deeply committed to improving the lives
of workers. Her work as a member of FDR’s cabinet demonstrated her commit-
ment to enhancing labor conditions and promoting federal social welfare services.
Perkins chaired the Committee on Economic Security, which developed the Social
Security program still in place today (McSteen, 1985; Severn, 1976).
The Great Depression disproved the concept that poverty was always the result
of personal laziness and unworthiness. During the Depression millions of hard-
working, responsible, and previously economically stable workers found themselves
without work. The circumstances of their poverty were out of their control. The
economic upheaval of the Depression altered public opinion toward social welfare
policy and programs. The overall failure of economic institutions lessened the resis-
tance of the voting public to adopting a national social welfare policy (Dobelstein,
The failure of the economic system brought the federal government into the di-
rect provision of social welfare services. The enactment of the Social Security Act
established the two main social welfare programs of today: social insurance and
public assistance (Berkowitz & McQuaid, 1988). The social security programs re-
flected Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts of providing relief in times of economic down-
turn while stressing employment as the key to economic well-being.
The Social Security Act, passed in August of 1935, represented a compromise
between radical and conservative ideologies. Conservatives were concerned that
federal social welfare policy would destroy individual responsibility and self-
determination. Radical proposals called for large payments and federal responsibil-
ity for the economic well-being of all Americans. In response to these competing
political pressures, the act included provisions for economic security for the aged,
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 37

unemployment insurance, and assistance for dependent children, as well as funds

for states to provide services to promote vocational rehabilitation, infant and ma-
ternal health, public health, and aid to children and people with disabilities. The
overall aim was to reinforce the work ethic by rewarding employment while at the
same time providing a federal safety net of economic relief for those most in need.
The Social Security Act created two main social welfare programs: (1) social in-
surance, including Old-Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, and (2) public
assistance, including Old-Age Assistance, Aid to Dependent Children, and Aid to
the Blind. Over the years the act has been amended numerous times to include
other provisions. The details of economic assistance and the Social Security Act
are explained more fully in Chapters 7 and 8 as part of the discussions on social
insurance, poverty, and economic inequality.
The Social Security Act put into place two programs with very different ap-
proaches to providing economic assistance. Social insurance is a collectively funded
program for workers and their dependents that provides economic resources at the
conclusion of employment due to retirement, disability, or death. It is social be-
cause anyone who works is covered, provided he or she has paid into it while they
worked, and it is insurance because the payments guarantee coverage for the rest of
the recipient’s life. Public assistance, on the other hand, does not require any in-
volvement prior to economic need. It is a government-funded effort to assist people
whose income falls below a certain level and are considered to be in poverty. It is
public because it is funded through general revenue collected by the government,
and it is assistance because it is meant to be temporary and aid people in distress,
not provide support for life.
The social insurance provisions of the Social Security Act were appealing for a
number of reasons. Initial acceptance was aided by the bias in the system: early en-
trants were favored with a high benefit-to-cost ratio, that is, in the early years of
the program, people would receive benefits after paying into the program for only
a short time. The program had an incremental structure: Costs were low at first
and then increased gradually. This structure made it more acceptable to the tax-
paying public. Also, the program’s design ensured that there was no stigma at-
tached to receiving benefits; workers had “paid” for the benefits with payroll taxes.
A person earned credits by working and did not have to prove financial need.
The public assistance provisions did not receive as much public support. Be-
cause of the tremendous poverty of the Great Depression, people needed immediate
economic aid. The overall plan was that public assistance was to be temporary.
Once the immediate economic crisis passed and all were employed (or related to
someone employed), there would no longer be a need for public assistance. The
severity of the Great Depression and the political savvy of Roosevelt and his sup-
porters lessened public opposition to both programs and reluctance to accept their
benefits. In the end, the Social Security Act reflected many compromises and con-
tained many ambiguities so that different interest groups could support it
(Derthick, 1979).
The establishment of the Social Security Act in 1935 marked the beginning of a
new era in social welfare policy in the United States. The act ushered in a period of
significant change in the ideological stance of the federal government: It marked the
beginning of the modern welfare state. Since 1935, almost all significant social
38 Chapter 2

welfare policy has been enacted as part of the Social Security Act or an outgrowth
of it. Its programs account for most of the coverage, recipients, benefits, and ex-
penses for social welfare from 1935 to the present. In addition, the creation of so-
cial insurance and public assistance through the Social Security Act gave rise to
several major shifts: there has been tremendous growth in the federal bureaucracy
and in the number of people working on social welfare issues, and the federal gov-
ernment has been established as the institution that takes on projects disowned or
ignored by the private sector (Berkowitz & McQuaid, 1988).


During the 1930s, significant social welfare policy shifts occurred. Human rights
were given more priority than property rights; the movement toward equality in ac-
cess to employment and education was initiated; legislation was passed to promote
better health and economic security; and the federal government began to intervene
in the nation’s economy. All of these changes helped to push forward the develop-
ment of professional social work (Fisher, 1980).



Existing social services and relief organizations could not deal with the millions in
need. The private charitable groups of the 1920s had been concerned with indivi-
duals and small-scale need, and they lacked the skills and resources to deal with
the tremendous social and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. Public
opinion changed because of the magnitude of the Depression. People who were
hardworking and had trusted the market system were suddenly without work.
They lost savings and had no prospects for self-support. The situation could not
be explained by the American belief in individualism and the inevitability that
hard work and honesty would always be rewarded. The market system had failed,
and poverty had become a societal concern. The combined failures of the economic
system, private charitable agencies, and state and local governments to address eco-
nomic need placed social welfare on the agenda of the federal government: “As a
result of the Depression, many people came to realize that the fortunes of individ-
ual Americans were interdependent, and many adopted the belief that it was the
duty of the federal government to prevent new depressions” (Gronbjerg, Street, &
Suttles, 1978, p. 46).
The belief in social responsibility and social change was significant during this
time period. Also for the first time, people became aware of how difficult it was to
respond to a crisis situation. They began to feel that prevention could be an impor-
tant part of the social welfare system. The Social Security Act demonstrated that
legislators had a positive belief in both immediate responses to crisis and preventive
actions to ward off future crises.
President Roosevelt was the first national leader to demonstrate empathy over
sympathy in social well-being. Although leaders before him, such as Lincoln, dem-
onstrated great concern for the plight of people who were oppressed and destitute,
Roosevelt promoted programs based on the premise that unfortunate circumstances
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 39

could happen to anyone and that the response should be empathic, not just sympa-
thetic. Economic downturn could hit people who had always worked hard, and,
therefore, social programs needed to be developed to guard against the vicissitudes
of the marketplace. Social Security was the proposed solution.
Prior to the 1930s, the federal government had played a secondary role to pri-
vate organizations and states and localities in social welfare policy. The federal
government had begun to intercede through regulation but had for the most part left
the market system alone. Therefore, those who did not benefit from the market—
poor workers, women and children, racial minorities, and immigrants—had received
no federal support. The economic upheaval of the Great Depression changed the
federal role, and social responsibility gained national support. Although in the years
to come those opposed to government involvement in personal life would challenge
this support, the federal government was firmly entrenched in the provision of social
welfare services by the end of the 1930s.


Challenged by international events, President Roosevelt was forced to focus on
World War II and abandon his primary concern with the social reforms of the
New Deal. World War II did what all the employment programs of the New Deal
could not: It put most Americans back to work. The war effort employed millions
through enlistment in the armed services and employment in war-related industries
and technologies. The war brought about social changes because the country was
closed to immigration and military personnel were exposed to foreign cultures. It
brought full employment and finally ended the economic downturn of the Great
In addition to bringing the economy out of the Depression, World War II per-
manently expanded the social role of the federal government. “New Deal spending
in the years 1937 through 1941 averaged $9.2 billion a year. By the years 1947 to
1950, however, federal expenditures averaged $37.8 billion. A four-fold increase in
government spending had occurred almost unnoticed” (Berkowitz & McQuaid,
1988, p. 147).
Expansion of the military also changed the social environment. With so many
men in the armed services, women were brought into the workforce and introduced
to nontraditional jobs. The famous “Rosie the Riveter” exalted the efforts of
women in jobs that men had formerly held. As the war went on, social mores
gave way to military necessity. African Americans were brought into the military
and slowly began to be integrated into the larger military system. The liberation of
women and the integration of African Americans were short lived, however. After
the war, the nation shifted into a period of private interest, a focus on the family,
and a conservatism not witnessed since the 1920s.
Immediately following the war, the federal government passed the Servicemen’s
Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI bill. It reflected the senti-
ment that the nation owed much to its veterans and therefore funded provisions
for education and training, home and business loans, and employment services de-
signed to help the returning soldiers adapt to civilian life (Axinn & Stern, 2008).
Although today the GI bill is viewed as a major piece of legislation, its original
40 Chapter 2

sponsors planned it to be nothing more than a modest support for readjustment

(Lemann, 1993). However, millions of people took full advantage of the educa-
tional provisions. The act contributed to a lasting positive view of the federal re-
sponse to returning veterans.
Although the federal government was permanently drawn into the provision of
social welfare services during the 1930s and 1940s, the efforts of the 1950s cen-
tered on incremental changes and services that reinforced the private domain. Fed-
eral subsidies for housing, mortgages, and transportation made it possible for
postwar families to leave cities and live in newly developed suburban areas (Ehren-
reich, 1985).
The one major social welfare policy development of the decade was the addi-
tion of disability insurance to the Social Security Act. This addition exemplifies the
development of social welfare policy during the 1950s. Change was incremental in
nature. It took years to convince policy makers to extend social insurance to cover
workers who became disabled and their families.


The addition of disability coverage to Social Security reflected the mood of the
times: It demonstrated how difficult it was to expand the coverage of the existing
Social Security Act. The conservative mood made developing any new social wel-
fare policies extremely difficult. The 1950s witnessed a postwar prosperity that em-
phasized private well-being. Although women had left the family to work outside
the home during the war, they returned during the 1950s to cultivate the family
and private interests. Reform in social welfare policy and social values would not
come for another decade.

Whereas the New Deal era promoted social responsibility, the post–World War II
period was an era in which individual responsibility was promoted. The crises of
the Great Depression and the war had passed, and the focus was once again on
the individual. Rational, incremental change was the preferred response to social
well-being. Economic growth and suburban development reinforced a concentra-
tion on personal life, and social responsibility faded in importance.

SOCIAL REFORM (1960–1970s)

The private focus and relative economic stability of the 1950s was broken by the
revelations of the 1960s. The economy had generally prospered. However, research
uncovered large segments of the population who had not benefited from the post–
World War II prosperity and were living in poverty. Michael Harrington’s book
The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), which described the eco-
nomic misfortunes of so many Americans, is credited with initiating the War on
Poverty. A massive migration of African Americans from the South to the North
had created densely populated urban areas untouched by the economic prosperity
of the 1950s (Jansson, 2009).
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 41

The 1960s, like the early 1900s and the 1930s, was a period of social welfare
policy development. In response to the “rediscovery” of poverty and the demo-
graphic shifts, two major social welfare policy initiatives were passed by 1964: the
Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 codified pro-
tection of racial minorities by requiring desegregation of public facilities and prohi-
biting discriminatory hiring practices (Jansson, 2009). President Lyndon Johnson
launched the War on Poverty as an effort to start his own New Deal (Trattner,
1999). The Economic Opportunity Act outlined the administration’s antipoverty at-
tempts. Among the provisions were the Job Corps program, which helped youths to
prepare for employment; VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which stressed
community service in impoverished neighborhoods; and Community Action Pro-
grams, which provided federal funds for community programs working toward the
elimination of poverty (Axinn & Stern, 2008). Also in 1964, the Food Stamp Pro-
gram was enacted to address the growing need to alleviate hunger in America.
Additional legislation was enacted in 1965. The Older Americans Act devel-
oped a nationwide network to coordinate services for the elderly. The coverage of
the Social Security Act was expanded by the addition of two major social welfare
programs, Medicare and Medicaid, to address health care for the elderly, the
poor, and people with disabilities. Early efforts during the 1920s and 1930s to in-
clude health coverage in the Social Security Act had failed. Supporters of health
care insurance and assistance had spent 30 years lobbying for health coverage. As
participants in the War on Poverty, they were successful in gaining passage of
Medicare, which is part of the social insurance program of the Social Security Act,
and Medicaid, which provides health coverage as part of public assistance. The ad-
dition of Medicare broadened the safety net of Social Security for the elderly and
workers who became disabled. The constellation of health services for the poor
was expanded through Medicaid.
The War on Poverty also affected other areas of social welfare. As a result of
the Economic Opportunity Act, Head Start was established in 1965. The goal of
Head Start was to prevent poverty by providing services for poor preschool chil-
dren and their families. The services included medical care, nutrition, school prepa-
ration, and parental education (Gustavsson & Segal, 1994). Civil rights legislation
also expanded. Chapter 5 provides greater detail about advances in desegregation
and policies enacted to ensure protection based on race and gender.


In a relatively short time, the face of social welfare policy was again dramatically
altered. Building on the programs of the New Deal era, social reformers in the
1960s promoted expansion of both social insurance and public assistance at
the federal level. Public health insurance was enacted to complete the coverage of
the Social Security Act. The War on Poverty brought the issue of social need back
to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The Civil Rights movement gained
momentum through public legislation as well as growth in public awareness. The
increased awareness extended to other social groups, as the women’s rights, Ameri-
can Indian rights, farm workers’ rights, and gay rights movements all coalesced
during the 1960s.
42 Chapter 2


Public consciousness was at a high level during the 1960s. In reaction to the con-
servatism of the 1950s, the focus shifted from the individual back to social respon-
sibility and social change. Emotions ran high. Leaders attempted to craft public
policies that would address social system failures. Poverty was again regarded as a
social ill more than as an individual shortcoming. Social support was one of the
key sentiments fueling the momentum to create a more just and fair society. The
Civil Rights marches and demonstrations represented, in addition to social change
and responsibility, a concern for people who were strangers, a sentiment that was
not seen during the post–World War II years.


For social welfare activists, the 1960s was a time of optimism, when it seemed that
all social problems could and would be addressed. Policies and programs were cre-
ated and supported by the government and the voters alike. No matter how liberal
and reformist the new legislative efforts might have been, however, conservative
ideologies were still evident. By the later 1960s, efforts were begun to curtail the
social largess of the decade. Public assistance, developed as part of the New Deal,
had shifted from aid for the elderly, those with disabilities, and widows and their
children to aid for a new population, the dependent children of unmarried, aban-
doned, or divorced women (Berkowitz & McQuaid, 1988).
By the late 1960s, the growth in the caseloads of single mothers and families of
color in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program (expanded
in 1962 from the original Aid to Dependent Children program of the Social Secu-
rity Act) prompted more punitive measures. The program was perceived as having
changed from one of income support for the worthy poor—widows and orphans—
to one of subsidizing women whose lifestyle differed from the norm and who were
not concerned with the nation’s family ethic (Abramovitz, 1996). The economy be-
gan to stagnate. The War on Poverty of the 1960s, although regarded as worthy,
did not eradicate poverty. The costs of the Vietnam War led to inflation. People be-
gan to view government skeptically. Thus, during the 1970s, the efforts of the pre-
vious decade underwent a reversal.
Despite the shifting ideology of the 1970s and President Richard Nixon’s con-
servative policies, a number of incremental policy initiatives developed. In 1973 the
federal government passed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act
(CETA), designed to help the unemployed, and a year later Title XX was added to
the Social Security Act to provide funds directly to the states for social welfare ser-
vices for the poor. Both initiatives reflected the more conservative elements of the
times, with reliance on local authority and the private market for implementation
rather than the federal government (Trattner, 1999).
The activism of the 1960s did not disappear during the 1970s. The women’s
movement gained momentum in gaining equal rights and protection from discrimi-
nation. Groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), organized
in 1966, established themselves as national representatives for women’s issues. In
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 43

1973, the landmark legal case of Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and in the process
gave women of all economic and social backgrounds access to the medical proce-
dure. Gay rights advocates mark the 1969 Stonewall riot as the beginning of the
gay rights movement. The riot was a violent, 5-day confrontation between the po-
lice and the gay patrons of the Stonewall bar in New York City. The confrontation
politicized many gay people and resulted in intensified organizing for equal rights
and protection from discrimination (Marcus, 1992).
The renewed conservatism of the 1970s settled in during the 1980s, however.
Represented by the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the entire decade was a time of
preoccupation with private interests. The Reagan administration focused on three
fundamental goals: shifting responsibility and power from the federal government
to states and localities, relying on the private sector to provide for social welfare
needs, and reducing federal programs and spending for social welfare initiatives
(Rochefort, 1986). The concept of devolution of social services marked public policy.
Devolution sought the return of control of social services from the federal level to the
state or local levels. This shift, supporters of devolution argued, would save costs for
the federal government and let those closest to the problems, localities, develop appro-
priate programs. While this concept had merit, it ignored the reason the federal gov-
ernment became the provider of many social services in the first place—left to their
own, localities either did not have sufficient resources or the will to provide services.
Social welfare policy legislation enacted during the 1980s was meager and
often punitive, taking resources away from social welfare services under the guise
of “less government.” This punitive response was particularly felt by poor women
who relied on government cash benefits to support their families. After cuts in
AFDC were made law in 1983 under President Reagan, the Family Support Act of
1988 was passed to amend the AFDC program. Described as “welfare reform,” the
act was punitive and restrictive, giving poor women less support and protection
from economic hardship (Segal, 1989).
When social welfare policy was enacted during the 1980s, it often came long
after a social problem had gained national attention. For example, in 1987, years
after researchers and mayors of urban cities had recognized the problem, the fed-
eral government finally passed legislation to provide support for people who were
homeless. The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was passed in July
1987, but was never fully funded. From 1987 to 1991, Congress authorized $3.3
billion, yet only $2.4 billion was actually appropriated to be spent on services for
people who were homeless (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992).
Just as slow in coming was the federal response to AIDS, a disease that had
gained public attention as early as 1983 (Shilts, 1987). The federal government
did not respond with AIDS-related legislation until 1990, when the Ryan White
Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act was passed. It was de-
signed to provide services for people with AIDS. As with other legislation of the
time, full funding was not forthcoming. In 1991 and 1992, the act received less
than one-fourth the authorized amount of almost $900 million (Select Committee
on Children, Youth, and Families, 1992).
At the same time that social welfare services were being rescinded and underly-
ing social problems were being ignored, the federal government invested untold bil-
lions in supporting corporate America. The $7.5 billion bailout of Continental
44 Chapter 2


Technology has entered people’s lives at a for the next 5 years would be 241,000
rapid pace. “In 1980, IBM projected that the machines. The actual number was almost
total U.S. market for personal computers exactly 100 times that” (Garreau, 2001, p. 7).

Bank in 1984 (Congressional Quarterly, 1985) and the more than $100 billion
spent between 1989 and 1993 for resolving the savings and loan scandal (Congres-
sional Quarterly, 1993) are the most publicized instances. Other subsidies of agri-
culture, energy, and technology groups were significant.
The decade of the 1990s can best be summarized as one of economic fluctua-
tions. The early years were bleak because the nation was mired in a recession.
Then the economy expanded at an unexpected rate. From July 1990 through
March 1991, the nation was in deep recession. During the next 18 months, the na-
tion was technically not in a recession, but the atmosphere was recession-like
(Rushefsky, 2002). Then, the nation rebounded and experienced an unprecedented
period of economic growth, which lasted until 2000. In addition to, and perhaps as
a contributor to, the economic expansion, technology found its way into thousands
of homes. It changed the way people communicate and gain access to information
and changed worker productivity (see Box 2.2).
The 1990s was also a period of political divisiveness. Republicans and Demo-
crats were deeply divided. Congress was controlled by the Democrats under the Re-
publican President George H. W. Bush. In 1994, the Republicans took control
under the Democratic President Bill Clinton. The divided federal legislative and
executive branches contributed to contentious public policy confrontations.
In spite of division in government and retraction in social welfare spending and
programs, gains in civil rights were made during the 1990s. In 1990, the Americans
with Disabilities Act was passed, mandating protections from discrimination for
people with disabilities. In 1991, after civil rights gains had been chipped away for
years, the Civil Rights Restoration Act expanded many of the protections of earlier
legislation. In the spring of 1993, gay advocates organized the largest civil rights
demonstration in American history with the March on Washington. Nearly a mil-
lion people demonstrated for equal rights and an end to discrimination based on a
person’s sexual orientation.
The election of Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992 ended
12 years of Republican control. Under President Clinton, several major pieces of legis-
lation were passed after they had languished for years in Republican administrations.
After twice being vetoed by President George H. W. Bush in 1988 and 1990, the
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed and signed into law in January
of 1993. Although it was minimal in its coverage and far less than what activists
had hoped to achieve, the FMLA marked the first time in history that the federal
government had mandated employers to guarantee unpaid leave for workers after
the birth or adoption of a child, or during the illness of a dependent or family mem-
ber. Other social welfare legislation passed under President Clinton included the
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 45

Brady Bill, which enacted controls on the purchase and ownership of handguns, and
the Anti-Crime Bill, which outlawed automatic assault weapons. These two bills had
been introduced to Congress during the Reagan and Bush administrations and had
met with defeat each time.
Democratic control of Congress was short lived. After the 1994 election,
Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in
more than 40 years. The Republican platform called for retraction of social welfare
services and a shift away from federal support. The Republican “Contract with
America” pledged to decrease federal control of social welfare services with a
move to turn over the responsibility to state and local governments. These posi-
tions built on those espoused during the 1980s under the Reagan presidency. The
Republican agenda of limiting social welfare programs and removing the federal
government from the social welfare system was reflected in the Personal Responsi-
bility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), signed into law by
President Clinton in August of 1996. This piece of social welfare policy represented
a radical shift in public assistance. Since 1935, the Aid to Families with Dependent
Children (AFDC) program had guaranteed cash assistance to any family with a
very low income. The new legislation canceled a guarantee that had been in place
for more than 60 years. The AFDC program was phased out and replaced by the
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
The new legislation removed unified federal guidelines for the program (Center
on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1996). Today, as a result of PRWORA, public as-
sistance programs vary by state. If a state runs out of money in a given year, it can
stop providing economic aid. Poor families have to wait until the next year for as-
sistance. In addition, there is a time limit on cash assistance. No family can receive
more than 5 years of assistance over its lifetime. The new law is very complicated
and contains numerous sections. A full discussion of TANF and the full impact of
this policy change are found in Chapter 8.


What characterized the 1980s was less government support for poor and disenfran-
chised people and more government support for corporate America. This seeming con-
tradiction reflected the priority of support for private interests rather than social
welfare programs. Less government was viewed as better government. This view led
to cutbacks in social welfare spending at the federal level, which in turn caused re-
scinding of services at the state and local levels. Disparities between those with high in-
comes and those with low incomes grew, leaving a larger gap between the rich and the
poor. From 1980 to 1990, household incomes rose by more than 20 percent for the
highest fifth, more than $20,000 in real dollars, compared with an increase of seven
percent, or $650, for those in the bottom fifth (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Lee, 2005).
The historical lesson of the 1990s is that even in modern times, economics has
a major impact on social welfare. Although the fluctuations of the Great Depres-
sion were more volatile and extreme, the economic changes of the 1990s were also
profound. Social welfare policies were mixed, perhaps reflecting the shifts in the
economy. Although civil rights gained some ground, public assistance was cut
back extensively and was viewed harshly by policy makers and the public.
46 Chapter 2

Political rancor soured people on government, and this had a negative effect on
social programs. Public support declined, and punitive and restrictive measures
were enacted. Dissatisfaction with the federal government promoted moving social
welfare services to state and local levels, furthering the decentralization begun dur-
ing the Reagan years. The impact of this shift has been strongly felt by social work
practitioners, who provide much of the staff for social welfare programs.


Distinction between deserving and undeserving people resurfaced by the 1980s.
The social responsibility ethos of the 1960s receded, and individual and private in-
terests had become the hallmark by the end of the 1980s. Whatever regard people
had had for prevention in social services prior to this period disappeared. The
focus was on personal failure as the reason for social problems rather than systemic
failures. The view of social welfare as a “hand-out” rather than an entitlement
dominated the public policy landscape. The desire to shift responsibility for social
welfare from the federal government to localities was also pronounced during the
years of retrenchment.
The 1990s witnessed the full return of differentiating between deserving and un-
deserving people. Poor women on public assistance were viewed as undeserving, and
subsequent legislation codified that belief. This perspective fueled beliefs in personal
failure as the reason for poverty and destitution. The full force of the belief in the
primacy of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency was evident in PRWORA.
For the most part, social responsibility and social change were marginal sentiments
during the 1990s. These narrow perspectives on and conflicting beliefs about social
welfare policy set the stage for struggles to come over the next ten years.


The first decade of the 21st century opened with some of the same conditions of the
previous decade. The contentious 2000 election, which gave a plurality of popular
votes to Democrat Al Gore but gave the electoral vote and, hence, the presidency to
George W. Bush, marked the beginning of the century. The bitter division of electoral
politics that influenced the 1990s became more entrenched during the new decade.
With the return of the presidency to the Republican party, the ideas of limited govern-
ment and individual responsibility were reinforced. Less government was thought to
be better, and lowering taxes was the rallying point for the Bush presidency.
However, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, with the terrorist attack on
the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, rocked the nation. Although
the lasting effect of that event remains to be seen, it is likely to have been a pivotal
point in U.S. history (Garreau, 2001). The events of 9/11 did demonstrate the impact
of crisis and the readiness of Americans and the government to respond. Although
President Bush was a strong advocate of less government intervention, he instituted
federal relief efforts on a major scale following the events of 9/11. These efforts in-
cluded restitution to families of those who died in the attacks, major monetary grants
for emergency efforts, and economic support and loans for corporate airlines and
airports. Directly as an outcome of 9/11, the cabinet level Department of Homeland
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 47

Security was created through the National Strategy for Homeland Security and the
Homeland Security Act of 2002. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was
developed to provide one unifying agency responsible for the national network of
organizations and institutions involved in efforts to secure the nation, and does so with
180,000 federal employees. Within DHS is the Transportation Security Administra-
tion (TSA). TSA is responsible for security of the nation’s transportation systems
and oversees the security for the highways, railroads, buses, mass transit systems,
ports, and 450 airports in the United States. TSA employs approximately 50,000
people from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Very quickly, in response to the crisis of 9/11,
the arm of the federal government grew instead of diminishing.
The early part of the decade also included major public policy changes, specifi-
cally Medicare reform. In December 2003, President Bush signed into law a Medi-
care prescription drug benefit. The goal is to help seniors pay for the high cost of
prescription drugs, but the program is such a complicated combination of options
and partial coverage that analysts fear it “will make it harder, not easier, for the
nation’s senior citizens to navigate health care in this country” (Dallek, 2003, p.
22). The program combines public and private services and is optional. The many
options in the program resulted from the need to find consensus among diverse
policy makers in order to pass it, but these options make for a very complicated
program (see Box 2.3). It began in 2006 and within the first two years had grown
to cover over 27 million people (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,
2008). A detailed description of the new benefit is given in Chapter 11.
The war in Iraq, which officially began in March 2003, went from a planned
short-term “shock and awe” blitz to a long-term costly war that has stretched on
for years. At the five-year anniversary in 2008, more than 4,000 American military
personnel had died and tens of thousands had been wounded. By the close of 2007,
the financial cost to the federal government for the global war on terror had been
$700 billion. Future costs will depend on the numbers of troops deployed. Over
the next ten years, troop levels of 30,000 to 75,000 are estimated to cost an addi-
tional $1.2 trillion to $1.7 trillion (Congressional Budget Office, 2008). The finan-
cial costs and human casualties of the war abroad have greatly affected the
resources available and needs for social services at home. This shift will have reper-
cussions on the United States for years to come.
Furthermore, the 2005 failure of the federal government and local authorities
to respond adequately to the disaster brought on by Hurricane Katrina in New
Orleans raised questions about the adequacy of social welfare policies and programs.
The abilities of local authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA) to respond to the crisis and aftermath were sorely inadequate. Even sev-
eral years post Katrina, rebuilding efforts and the return of residents were inade-
quate. Hurricane Katrina also revealed how long-standing social and economic
divisions are worsened by natural disaster. The poor of New Orleans, primarily
African American, lived in areas hardest hit and suffered significantly, with mini-
mal resources to rebuild their lives (White, Philpot, Wylie, and McGowen, 2007).
Immigration gained significant attention by 2007. Initial focus on immigration
was prompted by efforts to ensure unauthorized people do not enter or illegally re-
main in the United States as did some of the 9/11 terrorists. However, by 2008, the
focus on immigration centered on unauthorized workers who were primarily from
48 Chapter 2


Will the Medicare Reform of 2003 tions as is done for other health care
Help Seniors? services. And still others argue that the
The Medicare reform policy of 2003 was public was misled. One of the pressing
passed with the intent of helping low- questions that arose when the higher costs
income seniors to pay for prescription of the Medicare reform program were an-
drugs. Should the federal government pay nounced with the presidential budget for
this expense? When the legislation was fiscal year 2006 was this: How could the
passed, the estimated cost of the program original estimate be so wrong? That is,
was $400 billion over ten years. By Febru- how could the ten-year cost in 2003 bal-
ary 2005, the estimate had grown consid- loon from $400 billion to $600–700 billion?
erably to at least $720 billion over the next Part of the answer is that the program was
ten years (VandeHei, 2005). In 2008 the not slated to become fully operational until
Congressional Budget Office revised the 2006. The costs from 2003 until 2006
estimate for federal spending and figured would merely be planning costs. Therefore,
that with the offset of premiums the gov- the first few years of the ten-year plan
ernment cost would be about $625 billion would be much less costly than the ten-
for the first ten years, but costs by 2017 year costs, when the program would be
would be almost three times higher than fully operative. The larger question is this:
in 2007. Can we afford this cost as a na- Was the cost of $400 billion used because
tion? Some people argue that prescription it was lower and therefore more palatable
medications should be covered under the to the public and policy makers, even
health care policies of Medicare. Others though it was not reflective of the cost
argue that pharmaceutical companies are once the program was fully up and run-
making large sums of money through the ning? Did advocates of the policy have a
sale of prescription medications and that responsibility to disclose the full operating
the government should intercede in the costs rather than base their estimates on
market and broker group prices for medica- the lesser startup costs?

Latin American countries. Opponents of open immigration argue that these undoc-
umented people compromise security, while advocates argue that people come for
economic opportunities and serve in needed areas of employment. The issue of im-
migration is dealt with more thoroughly in Chapter 13. Like previous events, the
immigration debate raised questions about race and economics in America, issues
that are very relevant to social welfare policy.
The last major concern of the first decade of the new century was the economy.
The housing market, fueled by easy-to-get mortgages, fell and banks with heavy ex-
posure to the housing market suffered severe financial losses. Federal interventions
through the Federal Reserve Board and mortgage support efforts developed by the
President and administered through the Federal Housing Administration were initi-
ated in 2007 to stem the negative financial impact. By 2008, the federal government
had become deeply involved in the domain of private businesses and banks. With
passage of the Housing and Recovery Act of 2008, the Treasury Department took
over the government-sponsored but privately run mortgage agencies known as
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 49

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This effort is discussed in more detail in Chapter 9.
From a historical standpoint, this federal move, coupled with government bailouts
of other financial firms, shifted the federal government from the role of outside regu-
lator to inside operator within the for-profit financial business sector. The full impact
and cost of this shift will unfold over the next decade. These initiatives will increase
federal spending, and with the tax decreases initiated in the first years of the Bush
administration, further increase the national deficit. The state of the economy has
significant implications for social welfare and is addressed more fully in Chapter 9.
It is too early to tell what impact the first decade of the new century will have
on our social welfare system or what conflicting beliefs will dominate. We have
witnessed the nation’s capacity to respond to a major crisis such as 9/11. However,
that crisis has caused increased mistrust of strangers and people different from the
majority culture. Significant efforts at social welfare reform have been attempted,
such as the Medicare changes. For the first time in history an African American
and a woman were viable candidates to be nominated by a major party for presi-
dent, and a woman nominated for vice president. The election of Barack Obama,
the first African American to hold the highest political office in the United States,
is a remarkable social and political shift in America. President Obama’s cabinet
reflects the broad diversity of the American people, and as such suggests that a
broader scope of policy interventions will follow. A window into poverty was
opened with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The federal government expanded
in response to national security. The economy faltered demanding federal inter-
ventions. The economic interventions begun by the federal government in 2008
under President Bush continued under the new Presidency of Barack Obama with the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This public law earmarked
$787 billion to invest in jobs, infrastructure, energy efficiency, science unemployment
assistance, and funds to aid state and local governments. These events suggest that the
population of the United States expects government to intercede. However, the impact
of these events and what role in maintaining social well-being the government will
continue to play remain to be seen.

No matter what kind of social welfare policy decisions are made in the future, it is
certain that changes will build on the achievements and failures of the past. To be
prepared to participate in the dialogue for social welfare policy change, it is imper-
ative to understand its history. We really can, and should, learn from history. In
this chapter, an overview of the history of social welfare policy in America has
been provided that can serve as a foundation for understanding the U.S. social wel-
fare system.

Key Terms
Elizabethan Poor Laws unworthy poor Freedman’s Bureau progressive era
worthy poor indoor relief Dawes Act
50 Chapter 2

Charity Organization Servicemen’s Readjust- Food Stamp Program Family and Medical
Societies ment Act of 1944 Older Americans Act Leave Act
settlement movement GI bill Medicare Personal Responsibility
New Deal and Work Opportu-
War on Poverty Medicaid
nity Reconciliation Act
Social Security Act of Civil Rights Act of Head Start
1935 Temporary Assistance
1964 devolution for Needy Families
social insurance
Economic Opportunity Americans with Dis- (TANF)
public assistance Act abilities Act

Questions for Discussion

1. What can people learn from studying the 4. When did the federal government seem to
history of social welfare policy in America? become entrenched in the provision of social
2. Identify a period of history in which indi- welfare services? Do you think this has been
vidualism seemed strong. What were the a positive or negative trend? Why or why
social welfare responses of the time that not?
reflected the strong beliefs in individualism? 5. Give a recent example of new intervention or
3. Identify a period of history in which social expanded intervention by the federal gov-
responsibility seemed strong. What were the ernment. Do you think this expansion is
social welfare responses of the time that good for the nation? Why?
reflected the strong beliefs in social

1. Ask someone older than you if he or she will to historical events. For example, a group
reminisce about what they remember about might read The Grapes of Wrath for the
social conditions throughout their life. Were Great Depression or Forrest Gump for the
they alive during the Great Depression? Do 1960s. Are the books realistic portrayals?
they remember World War II? Were they Why or why not?
involved in social movements of the 1960s? 3. For each of the historical periods, list the
Do they remember the struggle over civil most significant social welfare policy change
rights? Try to link their personal experiences of the time. Are those changes still evident in
with the historical events outlined in this our social welfare system today? Why or
chapter. why not?
2. Read a historical novel to help bring to life 4. Browse through current news magazines or
some of the periods highlighted in the online news sites. Is there a current event
chapter. As a class project, several groups that you think is becoming or might become
can be formed, each focusing on a different in the near future a major social welfare is-
time period. The task is to find a novel sue? Bring it to class and share it with your
written about the time period and analyze fellow students. Do they agree or disagree?
the experience of the characters in relation Why?
Historical Foundations of Social Welfare in America 51

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Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Encyclopedia of social work. Vol. 1,
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Boulding, E. (1992). The underside of history. Vol. 2. Fisher, J. (1980). The response of social work to the
Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Depression. Boston: G. K. Hall.
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Dallek, G. (2003). A prescription for confusion. University Press.
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St. Martin’s.


OF ±

David Bacon/Image Works

54 Chapter 3

Social welfare policy usually represents the culmination of many social, political,
and economic events. A policy is shaped by the values and beliefs of its supporters
and influenced by social and economic conditions, timing of policy development, or
a combination of these and other factors. Many theories attempt to explain why
policy evolves the way it does. To understand social welfare policy, students should
become familiar with some of the leading ideologies, theories, and paradigms.
These three terms are often used interchangeably. However, for our purposes they
are defined as follows: Ideologies are ideas or bodies of thought that offer guid-
ance; theories are systems of ideas that explain a phenomenon; and paradigms are
patterns or models that provide a conceptual framework. As Figure 3.1 illustrates,
the three concepts are interrelated. Ideologies are the building blocks for theories.
Paradigms are built on both ideologies and theories.
This chapter presents ideologies, theories, and paradigms that attempt to ex-
plain why and how social welfare policy develops. The social conditions and values
that influence policy are also discussed. The synthesis of these factors is the founda-
tion for the analysis of the social welfare policies and programs discussed in this
book. The array of ideologies, theories, and paradigms is great. Consider that these
concepts are tools to help you analyze social welfare policies. Most public policies
reflect several of these concepts. The same social issue can be interpreted by one
set of ideas, only to shift to another over time. A clear example is the policy of
slavery in this country. Slavery was a policy based on ideologies, theories, and
paradigms that have changed over time. The changes in perspectives ultimately led
to the abolition of slavery. Knowledge of ideologies, theories, and paradigms helps
us to analyze policy and subsequently understand how and why policies and pro-
grams have evolved. One point worth noting is that the same issue over time can
be analyzed from different perspectives. Ideologies, theories, and paradigms are dy-
namic, and change in response to new information, research, and societal events.

Patterns or models that provide framework

Systems of ideas to explain

Ideas to guide


Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 55


Many concepts in social welfare policy are based on ideologies, which are ideas
that influence our thinking. Many ideologies influence the design of the American
social welfare system. Understanding ideologies helps to clarify some of the incon-
sistencies in policies and explain why the system looks the way it does today.


In the early years of the social work profession, the role of human services was the
focus of much debate. In 1929, the president of the first professional organization,
the National Conference on Social Work, addressed the issue. Porter Lee (1929)
differentiated between two aspects of social work: cause and function. Cause is the
issue on which people take a moral position to improve society. Function is the
day-to-day effort to provide services. Lee believed that workers should support
the cause while carrying out the function of their daily duties.
The conflict between cause and function is always present. To what extent
should people take action and fight for a cause, and to what extent should they
tend to the daily needs of the recipients of social services? Lee’s exhortation that
one should embrace the cause at the same time that one is carrying out daily duties
is a very tall order. Some theorists argue that supporting both cause and function is
impossible and that one must choose between the two. The War on Poverty of the
1960s demonstrated elements of this conflict. Some advocates felt that the public
assistance system was punitive. To labor in service of the system, or in Lee’s terms
to provide function, was to continue to impose a system that was not helpful. In-
stead, it was important to fight for the cause—better treatment of those who are
poor and receive public assistance—and to change the selective residual program
to a more universal institutional program. These fighters believed that the cause
prevented workers from functioning well.
The struggle between cause and function is often seen in social welfare history,
and social service providers face it today. For example, when a client lives in a dan-
gerous neighborhood, should the social worker help the client move or should the
worker fight to change the neighborhood? Often, it is easier to change the indivi-
dual’s situation than to change an entire community.


Individual responsibility is a key belief shaping the U.S. social welfare system.
Holding each person responsible for his or her own circumstances is a significant
part of American ideology (as discussed in Chapter 1). One variation of the ideol-
ogy of individual responsibility is blaming the victim.
The concept of blaming the victim was introduced by William Ryan (1971) to
explain why poverty and other concerns are viewed as personal rather than social
problems. Ryan argues that it is easier and more comfortable to blame the individ-
ual who is poor than to blame all of society. Social welfare in America has been
much influenced by this ideology. Citizens often prefer “to treat what we call social
problems, such as poverty, disease, and mental illness, in terms of the individual
56 Chapter 3

deviance of the special, unusual groups of persons who had those problems”
(Ryan, 1971, p. 16). If defects can be identified in the community and the environ-
ment, responsibility for them can be placed on all members of society. Ryan argues
that because of self-interest and class interest, most people prefer to see social pro-
blems as a result of individual defect rather than the result of a social system that is
unfair and exclusionary. If the individual is to blame, then the rest of society is not
responsible for making changes or offering help.
For example, if urban poverty is the fault of those who live in poor areas of a
city, then it is the poor residents’ responsibility to correct their behaviors and improve
their surroundings. On the other hand, if urban poverty is the result of the economic
system, then social change is needed to provide work for unemployed people.
Those who benefit from society the way it is are reluctant to criticize a system
that has been good to them. At the same time, there may be genuine concern for
those who are disadvantaged. The best way to reconcile concern for the poor with
respect for the status quo is to blame the victim and create social welfare services
that focus on changing the individual.
An extension of this theory is second-order victim blaming (Dressel, Carter, &
Balachandran, 1995). This theory explains the reasons why social welfare pro-
grams fail. For example, a social problem such as poverty gives rise to programs
such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If the programs fail,
critics claim that recipients are at fault rather than the programs. An illustration
will clarify this point further. If a client fails to show up for a scheduled appoint-
ment, the client is viewed as “noncompliant.” The possibility that the social service
office is not accessible to the client because public transportation is not available is
ignored. This level of victim blaming is important to social workers and their cli-
ents. If a client is not benefiting from a social service, workers should examine the
service’s design, funding, and implementation before considering the individual’s
motivation. Are the program components sound? Are services accessible? If not,
how can the program be changed? Too often, program failures are blamed on indi-
vidual recipients instead of poorly designed and implemented programs. This is
second-order victim blaming.


Social services are often developed to assist those whose needs are greater than
their resources or the resources of their family. Therefore, ideologies related to pov-
erty and how we view the poor are important to understand. The ideology of a cul-
ture of poverty goes hand in hand with the concept of blaming the victim. This
ideology asserts that some people are born poor and socialized to remain poor.
Poverty is a cultural destiny passed on from one generation to another. Poverty is
viewed as a set of attitudes and behaviors; the only way to help the poor is to teach
them to take on a new culture, the dominant culture. This idea was prevalent in
discussions of poverty in the 1960s, but it began much earlier. For example, at the
beginning of the 20th century, Charity Organization Society “friendly visitors” en-
tered the homes of poor people to model ideal behaviors for them.
In the years following the 1960s, a new version of the culture of poverty sur-
faced. Several social scientists, particularly William Julius Wilson (1987), have
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 57

described the permanent underclass and the culture of the ghetto. Wilson cites both
the individual and society as having responsibility for social conditions, specifically
poverty. He argues that because of economic isolation and distress, urban ghettos
produce a unique culture that is antithetical to the behaviors, beliefs, and values of
the majority culture. As Wilson sees it, the solution to poverty and related pro-
blems is for both institutions and individuals to change. Social welfare programs
and the economic system must become more sensitive to the needs of the individ-
ual, and each person must take responsibility for his or her personal behavior.


The degree of commitment to conservative and liberal beliefs about social welfare
policy differs. Conservatives generally oppose government intervention as a waste
of taxpayers’ money. Social programs are viewed as providing benefits to those
who do not need them or as creating a dependency that encourages people to stop
caring for themselves. (This perspective is found in many of the previously dis-
cussed ideologies.)
Liberals generally support active intervention by the federal government. Social
welfare policies are regarded as being so important that they should be legislated
by the government. Implicit in this view is the idea that the welfare of society can-
not be left to freely operate without some controls. Liberals view the government
as being a referee to ensure fairness and a provider to correct imbalances and
Conservative and liberal views are often considered to be contradictory and ex-
clusionary, that is, a person can hold one belief or the other but not both. The pol-
itics of the 1990s and 2000s has demonstrated how polarizing this dichotomy can
be. Radio talk shows identifying themselves as conservative have flourished, giving
rise to competing liberal-oriented shows. The media conflict reinforces the public
debate and dichotomy. It is possible, and some people identify this way, to hold
both perspectives. For example, you might hear someone describe him or herself
as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. What he or she mean is that he or she
do not support major government intervention in the economic realm but favor
government roles in social services and in promoting civil rights. If the social wel-
fare of all citizens is a high priority for policy makers, then the debate about which
perspective is better needs to be changed to the perspective of what will be most
beneficial for the most people.

Many of the ideologies already discussed are related to the concept of biological
determinism. Biological heredity is seen as determining how people behave. This
view holds that one’s heredity predetermines, or at least strongly influences, the
level of social and economic position a person achieves. Biological determinism is
not new. It has surfaced at numerous times throughout western history. It gained
early legitimacy through science. Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest” was
applied to human beings to explain poverty, racial differences, and gender differ-
ences (Harvey & Reed, 1992; Shipman, 1994). Supporters of social Darwinism
58 Chapter 3

argue that those at the top economically and socially got there because of innate in-
herited abilities. This approach ignores environment, social surroundings, access to
opportunities such as educational and employment opportunities, and resources
and privileges available to a person born to the right parents, classes, races, or so-
cial stratification.
Biological determinism flourished during the 1920s, resurfaced during the
1970s, and again gained popularity during the 1990s. The book The Bell Curve
(Hernstein & Murray, 1994) claims that intelligence is inherited and therefore pre-
determined. This ideology, like all forms of biological determinism, is antithetical
to the social work belief that people are affected by the environment and, therefore,
have the ability to change. Social welfare policies are often responses to inequalities
in the social and economic environment. Policies are public attempts to make
changes in the social environment so that people may grow and change. Adherence
to biological determinism blocks the development of social welfare policy.


The last ideology to be discussed here is the perspective that social welfare services
are a right. Most of the values and beliefs behind the U.S. social welfare system re-
flect an emphasis on the individual. If one focuses on the individual and his or her
abilities or means, then one can ignore the larger social and economic structure.
For example, people who view the failure of the War on Poverty to eradicate pov-
erty as a result of badly planned programs or the unwillingness of poor people to
change ignore the reality of the economic system.
Theorists such as Richard M. Titmuss (1968) have argued that the private
market system is plagued by problems of inequality, social injustice, and exclusion.
Poorly educated, ill-clothed, homeless, disenfranchised individuals cannot partici-
pate fully in the market system because they are so far outside of it. Their opportu-
nities are limited because of where they were born and where they live, as well as
their skin color, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, and other factors. Indi-
viduals cannot control or change the discrimination and exclusion put on them by
others. Therefore, the system and society as a whole must be held responsible for
the social well-being of these individuals.
This ideology holds that social welfare programs should not be viewed as an
afterthought provided selectively but as a social right provided through a universal
system. Health care is a good illustration of this ideology. Relying on the market-
place to provide health coverage has meant that large groups of people have no
health insurance coverage. Social welfare rights advocates believe that health care
coverage is a right to which all people are entitled, regardless of their own re-
sources. The only way to make health care a right is through universal coverage
provided by the federal government. Social welfare services as a right is a function
of public purpose over private interest.


Social welfare policies and programs in this country evolved over time. How did the
current social welfare system come to be? What factors precipitated the development
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 59

of social welfare policies, and how were the policies influenced? Several theories
have been developed to explain why the social welfare system evolved as it did. Six
of these theories are discussed here. This section closes with a view of how appro-
priate these theories are for the new information and globalization era of the 21st
century. Again, keep in mind that no one theory explains all social policy. Different
perspectives fit for different issues and different times in our history.


The structure of the modern social welfare system was created when the Social
Security Act was passed in 1935. This legislation created a permanent role for the
federal government as guardian of the social well-being of the entire nation (see
Chapter 2). Passage of the act marked the culmination of many events and social
According to the industrialization theory outlined by Wilensky and Lebeaux
(1965), today’s social welfare state traces its beginnings to the advent of the in-
dustrial era. From the 1850s to the 1920s, tremendous industrial expansion and
urbanization occurred in the United States. The result was both a greater need
for social welfare services and the means to cover that need: industrial growth
and urban crowding gave rise to social conditions that demanded attention, and
greater productivity gave rise to greater economic resources to address human
Industrialization led to new methods of manufacturing and new types of jobs.
It also led to modernization and attempts to produce more at less cost. The work-
ers’ standard of living improved with increased production and incomes, but the
magnates’ desire to maximize profits also caused poor working conditions to pro-
liferate. The changes in the workplace led to worker dependence on the owners of
businesses. This dependence gave rise to concerns about unemployment, job-related
disability, health care, and the care of dependent children and widows when a
worker was disabled or died.
Social conditions were also changing during the industrial era. With improve-
ment in health care and modernization of living conditions, life expectancy in-
creased and retirement became a real possibility. Family incomes rose, and people
became more mobile. Consequently, the extended family that had lived in the
same area in previous generations disappeared and with it the safety net it had
The changes in economics, communities, and family relations altered the provi-
sion of social welfare services. Although the individual was still primarily responsi-
ble for his or her well-being, workers also expected industry and government to
ensure that certain basic needs were met. Those needs included safety in the work-
place, a guaranteed minimum wage, regulated work hours and conditions, social
insurance for retirement, disability compensation, and survivors’ benefits in the
event of death. Industrialization had led to general acceptance of the federal, state,
and local governments having key roles in maintaining the social well-being of all
citizens. Although the government had provided temporary services during the
early years of the United States, by the 1950s the government had become a perma-
nent provider of social welfare services.
60 Chapter 3

Most social welfare programs and services in this country are residual in response
and selective in coverage (see Chapter 1). The residual and selective design of social
welfare policy largely reflects the ideologies, values, and beliefs of U.S. society. This
country was founded on individualism and self-sufficiency. Government interven-
tion is contrary to this philosophy, yet Americans also believe in helping those in
need. The tensions between these conflicting beliefs, individual responsibility and
social responsibility, have played a key role in the development of social welfare
Schlesinger (1986) views American history as a cycle between individual re-
sponsibility and social responsibility. He describes a “continuing shift in national
involvement between public purpose and private interest” (p. 27). During the cy-
cles, each period runs its course and brings about a change. When public purpose
is the dominant influence, sweeping changes are made in a short period of time.
Sustained public action, however, requires energy and intense political commit-
ment. People tire of this level of activity and need to regroup. Therefore, periods
of public purpose are followed by times of private interest, when people become
immersed in their personal lives. During periods of private interest, changes
brought about by public action are absorbed and people focus on privatization
and personal acquisition. Eventually, however, private interest leads to dissatisfac-
tion because acquisition is not possible for everyone and segments of society are in
need. People begin to feel that the system is not fair, and they press for public
change and social responsibility. In this way, the course of history shifts from
private interest to public purpose.
The cycles shift with generations. Schlesinger posits 30-year cycles. During the
late 19th and early 20th centuries, the cycles shifted several times. For example,
around the turn of the century the progressive movement called for public action.
The materialistic, acquisitive period of the 1920s followed. The next shift occurred
with the Great Depression and the accompanying outcry for public action. Public
action in the 1930s consisted of the New Deal and government provision of social
welfare services to individuals. In the 1950s, there was a return to private interest
characterized by conservatism and material growth. A shift occurred again in the
1960s, which was a period of public action. Interest and energy ebbed, and by the
1980s the nation had once again settled into a period of private interest. Accord-
ing to the historical cycles theory of social welfare policy development, the 1990s
might have ushered in a new period of public action and social change, but the
theory did not hold up in this instance. Although policies that had languished
during the 1980s, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and civil rights legis-
lation, were passed during the 1990s, the 1990s was overall a weak period of
social responsibility. It remains to be seen how the cycle will shift in the early dec-
ades of the 21st century. Regardless of whether the time frames fit (30-year cycles)
the concept of moving back and forth from periods of private focus to public
action, it seems to help explain the shifts we have seen in social welfare policy
over the past 100 years.
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 61

Some theorists view the development of social welfare policy as a tool of social
control. Those in positions of power use the institutions of the social welfare
system to control and direct the behavior of the needy. Piven and Cloward (1971),
in Regulating the Poor, cited public assistance as a tool used by those in political
power to quell social unrest and reinforce the employment system. By creating a re-
sidual social welfare program and keeping benefits low, the powers that be ensure
that most people will not be inclined to rely on public assistance and will instead be
willing to work, even at low-paying jobs. In time, when benefits are too low to meet
people’s basic needs, social unrest develops, and programs are expanded. In this way,
shifts are made in benefit amounts and eligibility but the basic system remains intact.
Like the historical cycles theory, the social unrest theory views social welfare
policy as alternating between periods of minimal benefits and periods of broader
services. The movement on this continuum reflects ongoing efforts by those in po-
litical power to keep social unrest at a minimum by first providing generous bene-
fits and then encouraging people to work by cutting back on benefits and
tightening eligibility requirements. This fluctuation has often occurred. Piven and
Cloward point to the 1930s and the 1960s as times when coverage and benefits
for public assistance expanded. These periods are evidence of attempts to regulate
the poor through social control. Both the 1930s and 1960s began with social
movements and ended with expansions in the social welfare system. After the ex-
pansions, social unrest dissipated. The poor were successfully regulated through
changes in social welfare benefits.


The elite power theory is built on the idea that a handful of people control the pol-
icies that govern all of society. It is related to social control theory. Domhoff
(1990) describes the elite control of public policy as the domination of the nation
by a small capitalist class. This dominant elite class is well connected to those who
make public policy.
There usually are very narrow limits to what can be accomplished by poor people,
minorities, trade unionists, and liberals through elections and the legislative process.
The costs of running for office are enormous for average people in terms of time and
money, and the impediments to change built into the legislative process make it very
hard to sustain a pressure-group coalition or legislative social movement that does
not have a great amount of money and patience. (Domhoff, 1990, p. 260)

Domhoff agrees with the social control theory on the fact that power gets redistrib-
uted when average people organize to disrupt the system. Although the conditions
and reasons that motivate people to disrupt the system vary and cannot be pre-
dicted, the process does occur and is often supported by those in power. That sup-
port is, however, both a response to disruption and an attempt by the elite class
to hold onto its position of power. The concept of a ruling elite is controversial.
Box 3.1 discusses this in more detail.
62 Chapter 3


Is the country run by an elite group? Dye (p. 10) identifies a total of 7,314 elite people,
that is, less than three-thousandths of 1 percent
The idea that a small, powerful group of people are
of the nation’s population, who:
making pivotal decisions and are in control of policy
flies in the face of our belief in our democratic sys- control over one half of the nation’s industrial
tem. We believe that all people have a say in their assets;
government. According to our Declaration of Inde-
control over one half of all U.S. banking assets;
pendence, our government derives its power from
the consent of the governed. We have a Constitu- control over three quarters of all insurance
tion that outlines the right of the people to govern assets;
themselves. So how can we have an elite group direct Wall Street’s largest investment firms;
with power and control of America? Dye (2002) ar- control all the television networks;
gues that power in America rests with a handful of
control all the major media conglomerates;
people by virtue of the positions they hold:
control almost half of all the assets of private
A few thousand individuals out of 281 million
Americans decide about war and peace, wages
and prices, consumption and investment, em- control two thirds of all private university
ployment and production, law and justice, taxes endowments;
and benefits, education and learning, health and direct the nation’s largest and best-known
welfare . . . In all societies—primitive and ad-
New York and Washington law firms;
vanced, totalitarian and democratic, capitalist
and socialist—only a few people exercise great occupy key federal government positions
power. This is true whether or not such power is in the executive, legislative, and judicial
exercised in the name of “the people.” (p. 1) branches.


All of the theories discussed so far have a number of common characteristics. Each
theory suggests that social welfare policy is a consequence of historical events. Sev-
eral identify a cyclical pattern, and all have an economic component. Industrializa-
tion changed the economy of this country, giving rise to the modern social welfare
system. Social values and beliefs changed as the acquisition of resources shifted:
when private interests were not being met through sufficient growth in income,
people looked to the government for remedies. Benefits expanded in response to
social unrest. Often that social unrest was sparked by economic upheaval, as dur-
ing the Great Depression.
Analysis of history and policy evolution suggests that economics is a driving
force behind the policies and politics of social well-being (Segal, 1987). Chapter 2
traced the historical ebb and flow between periods of economic growth and eco-
nomic hardship. A pattern seems to emerge of policies changing in response to eco-
nomic shifts. Times of growth are marked by emphasis on individual responsibility
and times of economic contraction by increased demands for the government to
take responsibility for people’s well-being.
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 63

As we have seen, the value placed on individual responsibility dates back to the
earliest times in America. Rugged individualism meant that each person was re-
sponsible for his or her own welfare. This responsibility extended to the indivi-
dual’s family and sometimes to the well-being of the immediate community.
Throughout American history, however, there have been national upheavals, such
as industrialization, urbanization, depression, and war, which have altered the mar-
ketplace. During national upheavals, individuals could not adequately provide for
their own well-being. At these times, government was called to step in and take
over the responsibilities of individuals and families. Thus, in spite of the idealized
image of the rugged individual, the reality of life is that government has always
stepped in to aid individuals (Dolgoff, Feldstein, & Skolnik, 1993). From the earli-
est history of this country to the present, government has helped to support medi-
cal care, economic credit, industrial development, and general social well-being.
The theory of economics as a determinant of social welfare policy focused on
the public perception of government intervention. When the economy is strong, op-
portunity for economic gain appears limitless. If there are jobs and growth and yet
a person is not working, that person is viewed as lazy. Government assistance is
seen as evidence that an individual is weak and not taking responsibility. When
the economy is bad, however, the market system is blamed rather than the individ-
ual. People turn to the government for assistance, and seeking help is not seen as a
weakness. The Great Depression is the most significant illustration of this phenom-
enon. The rate of unemployment during the Great Depression exceeded 25 percent.
With so many previously employed people out of work, public attention focused
on the failures of the economic structure and people were open to government in-
tervention. As discussed previously, the dire economic conditions resulted in the en-
actment of the Social Security Act and the birth of the modern social welfare
system. The recession of 2007–2009, which officially began in December of 2007,
and the accompanying economic meltdowns of the housing and financial markets
demonstrate the theory as well. The federal government has embarked on an eco-
nomic intervention not seen since the days of the Great Depression. Once all the in-
terventions are tallied, the economic stimulus provided by the federal government
may total in the trillions of dollars.
Public debate on national health insurance coverage is another example of how
economic pressure can influence social welfare policy. For decades, advocates have
been calling for a national health care program but policy makers have paid little
attention. Following the election of Bill Clinton, as the nation was coming out of
an economic recession, there was a flurry of activity on health care reform. The
federal government considered developing a comprehensive health care system.
Federal attention diminished with the election of George W. Bush and a commit-
ment to private sector management. However, state governments still struggled
with the issue. Why? According to the economic determinants theory, health care
is an area in which the marketplace has failed, because individual needs are not be-
ing met. Many people today are employed and working full time but do not have
adequate health care coverage for themselves or their families. Or, they have lost
their jobs due broader economic conditions. They are participating in the economy
but are not receiving what they need to pay for health care. When such an imbal-
ance occurs, people look to government to correct the inequity. With the economic
64 Chapter 3

downturn of the late 2000s and the presidential campaign of 2008, the issue of na-
tional health care returned. The election of Barack Obama as president, who has
pledged support for a broader national approach to health care, suggests that the
electorate is once again asking for that policy. Thus we see that one driving force
behind the push for government intervention in addition to economic conditions is
a sense that those who participate fully in the marketplace are not reaping the re-
wards of their efforts. Other economic variables have pushed the health insurance
debate. Support for government-funded health insurance has grown not only in re-
sponse to public concern about the economic imbalance between working and not
receiving health care coverage but in response to the economic bottom line for
businesses—profitability. Corporations and businesses are finding the cost of health
insurance for employees is growing and affecting their economic profitability. If the
federal government steps in to provide health insurance, businesses will be able to
remove themselves from the role and cost of being the source of health insurance.
Thus, individual, social, and even corporate economics can be a driving force
behind social welfare policy.

Critical theory combines elements of social control, elite power, and economics in
explaining the evolution of social welfare policy. Critical theory examines social
life with the goal of evaluating U.S. social order and the ways in which power and
domination affect people’s lives. Critical knowledge helps us discern ways that
oppression and domination can be changed (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998; Fay, 1987).
Although analysis of social interactions is important, critical theory includes pre-
scriptions for change that liberate oppressed people from people in power. We
must examine the U.S. social world from many perspectives to find power imbal-
ances, including those involving class, race, and gender (Agger, 1991; Thayer-
Bacon, 2000).
An illustration of this theory is found in a critical theorist’s view of public as-
sistance. Although Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a social welfare
program that addresses poverty, its recipients are primarily low-income single
women and children who are disproportionately people of color. The public policy-
makers who crafted TANF are mostly white male legislators with high levels of ed-
ucation and income. Therefore, a deconstruction of TANF from a critical theory
perspective means not only looking at the economics of poverty but also at the
ways in which gender, race, class, and family composition fit in and at who is mak-
ing the decisions on how the program is constructed (Segal & Kilty, 2003). How
well did those who made the decisions about TANF understand the conditions of
those who live under the program? A comparison of lawmakers and for whom the
law was made reveal vast differences in class, race, and gender.
Critical theory includes a call for action. Paulo Freire’s work (1990) empha-
sizes this important piece of critical theory—the element of consciousness raising
and praxis or social action. Critical theory includes the process of self-reflection
and ultimately should result in social change. Once people understand the imbal-
ance of power, they can begin the process of social change to liberate those who
are oppressed. It is action oriented, because it calls for social change to even out
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 65

power imbalances. Critical theory is a controversial way to analyze the U.S. social
welfare system because it challenges the status quo.


The theories already discussed have emphasized the influence of the industrial era
and political elites. The United States underwent a major shift in the late 20th cen-
tury. The production era of industrialization that lasted from the 1950s through
the 1970s ended. And the nation entered a new economic period of services. This
new period, begun in the 1980s, is often referred to as the postindustrial era. Post-
industrial production centers on service delivery, examples of which include health
care, technology, financial and legal information, and personal care. The other sig-
nificant influence since the 1980s has been globalization, the increasing connected-
ness of the world’s economy. Theories about postindustrial changes and
globalization shaping social welfare policy since the 1980s posit that these changes
are different than those of the industrial period following World War II and con-
tinuing through the 1970s.
Myles and Quadagno (2002) discuss the influences of postindustrialism, glob-
alization, and two other social forces, gender and aging of the workforce. They
find that neither postindustrialism nor globalization have changed the structure of
the U.S. social welfare system. Although economic downturns have resulted in re-
tractions, the structure of the system as it evolved out of the industrial era is still
intact. Two other issues have been the main influences: the movement of women
into the labor force and the aging of the U.S. population. The demographic shift
of women in the workplace has affected social welfare policies more than any other
single factor in recent years. During the postwar years, social welfare proponents
were concerned with creating a safety net to be used in the event that the typical
male breadwinner lost his job because of illness, unemployment, or old age. With
the increase in the number of women working, the social welfare system has been
pushed to accommodate women and family needs. “The pattern of the welfare
state reform since the 1980s has not just been a story of retrenchment but also
one of significant restructuring. At the same time that traditional benefits have
been scaled down, new entitlements are being created” (Myles and Quadagno,
2002, p. 49). So although traditional social services related to the needs of the
male breadwinner have been cut back, new women- and family-centered policies,
such as family leave and child care credits, have been increased. Therefore, Myles
and Quadagno argue the social welfare system has not radically changed since the
industrial era; rather, it has been restructured and the focus has shifted to accom-
modate the changing demographic and social needs of the nation.


Paradigms are patterns or models that form a picture to help us understand social
phenomena. By analyzing social welfare policy with these models, we can under-
stand why policies evolved the way they did. With those insights, we can find
ways to make social welfare policies and programs more effective and appropriate.
Once again, social issues can fit multiple paradigms, although typically there is a
66 Chapter 3

dominant model based on the issue and historical context that helps to explain
how specific social policies come to be.

People create a shared reality. We attribute various characteristics to groups. For
example, we may believe stereotypes that “all men are strong” or “all women are
nurturers.” These views are reinforced through values and beliefs, and then passed
on to others through stories, language, and interpretations. These images are seen
as reality, although they are social constructions. Social construction occurs when
those who are dominant in a society define a group’s characteristics and determine
the group’s value. The dominant perceptions are accepted by society as the norm.
The social construction of racial groups has changed enormously, with a tre-
mendous impact on American society. Racial differences have historically been pro-
moted as facts of nature. However, many have realized that “the racial categories
with which we have become so familiar are the result of our imposing arbitrary
cultural boundaries in order to partition gradual biological variation” (Marks,
1994, p. 34). In fact, the mapping of the human genetic code reveals that there is
very little differentiation between people all over the world—we are about 99.9
percent genetically identical—and that “race itself has no genetic basis. No genes,
either by themselves or in concert with others, were able to predict which race
each person had claimed to be” (Weiss, 2001, p. 7). Race has been socially con-
structed to label some people as inferior and others as superior. The labels are not
based on biological reality.
Social construction means that people give meaning and importance to charac-
teristics and that those differences are not based on physical realities. That meaning
is reinforced through public policy (Schneider & Ingram, 2005). Slavery, and then
later the abolition of slavery, are major historical examples of public policy reinfor-
cing social construction, in this case the view that one race was superior to another.
Public policy formalizes this view, and then the impact over time from the policies
“proves” the veracity of the social construction. For example, segregation in the
United States ensured that people of color, particularly African Americans, were
educated separately from whites. Even when freed slavers were finally allowed to
attend school, they attended separate schools that were poorly funded and inferior
to the schools attended by whites. This led to continued low levels of education for
many African Americans, and this outcome served as proof supporting the original
social construction of inferiority due to race.
As a paradigm, social construction provides a lens through which to analyze
social welfare policy. If social programs are designed to support the family model
of two heterosexual parents, with the male working full-time outside the home
and the female staying home to care for children, and if families no longer look
like that, then social construction allows one to examine the structure of today’s
families and, in turn, what social supports those families need. If women are work-
ing full-time, then child care policies need to be considered. Rather than insisting
on the genetic “fact” that men work and women stay at home, social construction-
ists push us to see whether this is a physiological reality or a socially constructed
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 67

Social construction can also lead to social change. If indeed all policies are
framed by values and beliefs reinforced by dominant groups, then we have the
power to change the way issues are viewed and hence change policy. Social con-
struction not only explains why things are the way they are but can also provide a
method to create social change. For example, the nation experiencing an African
American and a woman running for president challenges the historically dominant
view that U.S. Presidents are always white men, as had been the case for hundreds
of years. The outcome of the 2008 election proved that there can be different social
constructions of the qualifications for the highest political office. There is no doubt
that 100 years ago society held strongly to the view that it was a factual impossibil-
ity that an African-American person or a woman could hold such a political leader-
ship position. Now that possibility exists with the election of an African American
man, even though the physical attributes have not changed over the past 100 years.
Social perspectives and dominant ideologies have changed, and that is social

Critical analysis, which is based on critical theory, is a way of viewing the world
that combines deconstruction, self-reflection, and praxis or social action (Fay,
1987). It includes norms or values. It is not value neutral (Bentz & Shapiro,
1998). One technique used for critical analysis is deconstruction (Agger, 1991),
which is discussed in more detail in Box 3.2. What a person’s language or writings
appears to mean on the surface may not be what is truly meant. People use analysis
to take apart what is said or written to identify who is speaking and why, what the


Jacques Derrida is one of the most famous critical law, that is a kind of deconstruction, a critique
theorists who used the technique of deconstruction. and deconstruction. So, the law as such can be
Here he differentiates between the process of de- deconstructed and has to be deconstructed.
construction, examining law, and the impulse or That is the condition of historicity, revolution,
feeling of justice, which is a drive and not some- morals, ethics, and progress. But justice is not
the law. Justice is what gives us the impulse, the
thing to be deconstructed:
drive, or the movement to improve the law,
There is a history of legal systems, of rights, of that is, to deconstruct the law. Without a call
laws, of positive laws, and this history is a his- for justice we would not have any interest in
tory of the transformation of laws. That is why deconstructing the law. That is why I said that
they are there. You can improve law, you can the condition of possibility of deconstruction is
replace one law by another one. There are con- a call for justice. Justice is not reducible to the
stitutions and institutions. This is a history, and a law, to a given system of legal structures. That
history, as such, can be deconstructed. Each means that justice is always unequal to itself.
time you replace one legal system by another (Caputo, J. D., 1997, pp. 16–17)
one, one law by another one, or you improve the
68 Chapter 3

words mean to different people, and how the historical and current contexts influ-
ence the words. Why is critical analysis being promoted at this time, and by
whom? Critical analysis draws further on critical theory, examines power relations,
and calls for change if there are imbalances in power. If one group dominates an-
other who is oppressed, then action must be planned to address this imbalance.
Critical analysis can be very controversial because it calls for action to change
the control and distribution of power in policy-making. Based on social construc-
tion, critical analysis identifies the dominant culture and its values. Critical analysis
goes beyond the assessment of dominant culture and outlines ways that it can be
changed. Critical analysis looks closely at the impact of power and dominant con-
trol of society, assesses how those in control use their power to reinforce the status
quo, and looks for ways to change the distribution of power. Civil rights move-
ments often reflect critical analysis. Disenfranchised groups identify how they are
oppressed and make demands to change social structures to include or protect
them. For example, the women’s movement was based on critical analysis of how
men had dominated social, political, and economic domains in society and women
had been relegated to secondary status. Awareness of this difference led to a social
movement demanding changes that allowed women access to the same levels of
power that men had. Over the decades since the beginning of the women’s move-
ment, social change has evolved—women’s wages have grown, the numbers of
women in male-dominated professions has increased, and women are actively in-
volved in politics and elected office. Policy analysis of gender differences in society,
accompanied by social action to change that imbalance combined to demonstrate
the application of the critical analysis paradigm.

Distributive justice describes the social obligation of the state to all its citizens to
provide agreed-upon social benefits that are not only fair to the recipients but that
contribute to the betterment of U.S. society (Rawls, 1971). Rawls argued that the
public adherence to justice is fundamental to a well-ordered society. In terms of so-
cial welfare policy, distributive justice involves attention to both the individual and
society, providing a framework that combines the two:
Justice is a matter of allocating social resources fairly, and injustices can be rectified
either by helping an individual to work within the current system to obtain the needed
resources or by getting society to change the system of allocation. The justice account
has no problem integrating indirect and direct services, policy and treatment, as justice-
related interventions. (Wakefield, 1988, p. 208)

A distributive justice paradigm calls for us to identify what social benefits should
be provided to all citizens and then create ways to ensure a fair allocation of those
benefits. So, if education is believed to be a social benefit (i.e., that the receipt of it
helps both the individual and all of society), then we must strive to find ways to en-
sure that all citizens have access to quality education. Although there is attention to
both the individual and society, this distributive justice approach to social welfare
policy emphasizes social responsibility.
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 69

The strengths-based focus is an intervention model posited to guide social service
providers to emphasize the positive attributes of a person over the person’s deficits
or needs.
A strength’s perspective assumes that when people’s positive capacities are supported,
they are more likely to act on their strengths. Thus, a belief in people’s inherent capac-
ity for growth and well-being requires an intense attention to people’s own resources:
their talents, experiences, and aspirations. Through this active attention, the probability
for positive growth is significantly enhanced. (Saleeby, 1992, p. 25)

In social welfare policy, this means building policies and programs on peoples’ ex-
isting strengths. For example, if parents want to stay at home with their children,
and there is a social benefit from adults being at home and available to their chil-
dren, regardless of whether they are single parents or married, then social supports
should be found to allow parents to stay home. This solution builds on the
strengths of adult caregiving for children without emphasizing how a family should
be structured—that is single or married parents. The strengths perspective can be
seen as a corollary to the social construction model. Again, using family structure
as an example, a strengths focus for policy is to look at how to support all parent-
ing regardless of marriage status of the parent. Individuals bring skills and abilities
to parenting, so how can social policy reinforce those abilities for the individuals?
What social structures need to be in place to support those individuals and bring
out their strengths as parents? By doing so, the focus is on parenting and not on
the composition of families. And in this process, we can socially reconstruct what
is good parenting and move away from the social construction that good parenting
is only achievable with two parents.

Empathy is the ability to understand the situation and experiences of another per-
son. Social empathy (Segal, 2006) calls for us to use insight gained about people’s
lives to develop public policies that are sensitive to people’s needs based on the re-
alities of their living situations. A social empathy paradigm provides a framework
with which to analyze social concerns and develop policies that reflect the lived ex-
periences of people.
If people want to address social problems in the United States and change the
conditions that perpetuate economic and social disparity and exclusion, then they
must address the conflict in attitudes and experiences. People who have never been
poor or never experienced discrimination that has prevented them from educational
and employment opportunities, for example, may have trouble understanding va-
lues like prevention and social support. If a person’s frame of reference is that ev-
erything in life depends on individual efforts, then the person will not see any
value in social responsibility.
Although there are other ways to address social well-being, we need to help
people who have no personal experience or insight into what it means to grow up
poor or disadvantaged or discriminated against in America to see what that looks
70 Chapter 3

and feels like. I suggest that we begin to explore ways to develop social empathy—
increasing the capacity of people to understand and experience the conditions of
others who are not like them.
Teaching individuals empathy is difficult, yet it is considered an important part
of social relationships and development. It is key to the ability to adapt and change
(Watson, 2002). Empathy is critical to becoming an emotionally intelligent person
(Goleman, 1994). When people develop empathy, they are more likely to under-
stand other people’s needs and develop ways to build a better society.
The likelihood of someone who is wealthy knowing or understanding the day-
to-day life of someone who is poor is small today. Yet we know that people learn
best from firsthand experience. How can educators close the experience gap be-
tween those at the top and those at the bottom? They must begin to find ways to
teach policy makers, voters, and people who have never experienced need and in-
equality what it is like. They need to find ways to develop social empathy, the abil-
ity to feel and understand what others are experiencing in American society, and
what it would be like to live the lives of others.


Social work has professional principles and ethics. Each social worker, in receiving
a degree, agrees to abide by the profession’s values. These values include fostering
self-determination on the part of clients and promoting the general welfare of soci-
ety (see Box 3.3). They also demonstrate that workers are obligated to advocate for
social welfare policies and programs that promote social justice, respect diversity,
and improve social conditions.


Section 6. The Social Workers’ Ethical Responsi- 6.03 Public Emergencies

bilities to the Broader Society Social workers should provide appropriate profes-
sional services in public emergencies to the great-
6.01 Social Welfare est extent possible.
Social workers should promote the general welfare
of society, from local to global levels, and the devel- 6.04 Social and Political Action
opment of people, their communities, and their en- (a) Social workers should engage in social and po-
vironments. Social workers should advocate for litical action that seeks to ensure that all people
living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic have equal access to the resources, employment,
human needs and should promote social, economic, services, and opportunities they require to meet
political, and cultural values and institutions that are their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social
compatible with the realization of social justice. workers should be aware of the impact of the politi-
cal arena on practice and should advocate for
6.02 Public Participation changes in policy and legislation to improve social
Social workers should facilitate informed participation conditions in order to meet basic human needs and
by the public in shaping social policies and institutions. promote social justice.
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 71


(b) Social workers should act to expand choice that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and
and opportunity for all people, with special regard social justice for all people.
for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and (d) Social workers should act to prevent and
exploited people and groups. eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and dis-
(c) Social workers should promote conditions crimination against any person, group, or class on
that encourage respect for cultural and social diver- the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color,
sity within the United States and globally. Social sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expres-
workers should promote policies and practices sion, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or
that demonstrate respect for difference, support mental or physical disability.
the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, Revised by the 2008 NASW Delegate Assembly
advocate for programs and institutions that demon- NASW (2008)
strate cultural competence, and promote policies

The ideologies, theories, and paradigms presented here are not mutually exclu-
sive—they are interrelated. Some build on others, as suggested in Figure 3.1. They
are tools for analyzing social welfare policies and programs and the social condi-
tions and social needs that are part of society. It is likely that particular paradigms
may appeal more than others. Some policy analysts prefer to use one paradigm
consistently. They might refer to it as the “lens” through which they perceive social
conditions. The author prefers to see the paradigms as an arsenal of tools that can
be used to decipher why the U.S. social welfare system is the way it is.


So how do conflicting beliefs enter into the discussion of ideologies, theories, and
paradigms? Beliefs sway thinking and hence play a significant role in people’s inter-
ests in a particular ideology, theory, or paradigm. For example, if a person feels
strongly that social responsibility is important, the person might be drawn to the
paradigms of critical analysis and social empathy because both emphasize social
change. If a person is more focused on individual change, then distributive justice
or strengths-based paradigms may be a better fit. Understanding one’s own beliefs
is an important first step in analyzing social welfare policies. Once people are
aware of their own biases and preferences, they can better understand how and
why they perceive their social surroundings the way they do.


This chapter has presented the broad concepts of the foundations of social welfare
policy. Understanding these ideas helps us to analyze social welfare policy in
72 Chapter 3

America. At different times in history, these perspectives dominated social thought.

At first reading they may seem complicated and varied; however, it is important to
become familiar with them. They are key to understanding our social welfare system.
These principles help to explain why and how the social welfare policies of today
came to be. Without understanding their evolution, it is impossible to intelligently
evaluate them and make meaningful changes. Parts of all of these concepts can be
found in the patchwork of the social welfare system. Throughout the rest of this
book, I will refer to these ideas in explaining social welfare policies, programs, and

Key Terms
ideologies blaming the victim elite power social construction
theories culture of poverty critical theory distributive justice
paradigms biological determinism postindustrial era social empathy
cause and function social control globalization

Questions for Discussion

1. What is the difference between an ideology, 4. What is critical theory? How can you use
a theory, and a paradigm? it to apply critical analysis to the study of
2. Consider the roles of men and women in our social welfare policy?
society. How have these roles been socially 5. What is social empathy? Do you think that
constructed? Have those constructions our social programs are built using social
changed over time? Describe. empathy? Why?
3. How have economics played a part in the
development of social welfare policy?

1. Choose one theory of the U.S. social welfare 3. Obtain a copy of the mission statement of a
system. List the strengths and weaknesses of social service organization in your commu-
this theory. Does it help to explain the evo- nity. Does it reflect the social worker’s ethi-
lution of social welfare policy in this coun- cal responsibility to society as described in
try? Why or why not? the NASW Code of Ethics in Box 3.3?
2. Choose a social issue or problem. Choose a 4. Choose a social characteristic—a race, gen-
partner. Each partner should take one side der, class, or sexual orientation. List all the
of an opposing position based on the ideol- attributes you can think of that are associ-
ogies presented in the chapter. After five ated with that characteristic. Now review
minutes of debate, switch sides. Which per- the list. Are these attributes biologically
spective was easier to articulate? Why? How predetermined or socially constructed? Share
did your own feelings or values affect your your list with a classmate and discuss.
Conceptual Foundations of Social Welfare Policy 73

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Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful inquiry work. New York: Longman.
in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Schlesinger, A. M., Jr. (1986). The cycles of American
Caputo, J. D. (ed.). (1997). Deconstruction in a history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida. Schneider, A. L. & Ingram, H. M. (2005). Public
New York: Fordham University Press. policy and the social construction of deservedness.
Dolgoff, R., Feldstein, D., & Skolnik, L. (1993). In Schneider, A. L. & Ingram, H. M. (eds.),
Understanding social welfare, 3rd ed. New York: Deserving and entitled Social constructions and
Longman. public policy (pp. 1–28). Albany, NY: State
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De Gruyter. Social empathy and welfare reform. In Kilty, K. M
Dressel, P. L., Carter, V., & Balachandran, A. (1995). & Segal, E. A., Eds. The promise of welfare reform:
Second-order victim-blaming. Journal of Sociology Rhetoric or reality?, pp. 265–274. Binghamton,
& Social Welfare 21(2), 107–123. NY: Haworth Press.
Dye, T. R. (2002). Who’s running America? 7th ed. Segal, E. A. (1987). Social welfare policy in response
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. to economic change: Fifty years of social security.
Fay, B. (1987). Critical social science. Ithaca, NY: Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at
Cornell University Press. Chicago.
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New York: Continuum. promises for welfare reform. Journal of Poverty
Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence. 7(1/2):51–67.
New York: Bantam. Shipman, P. (1994). The evolution of racism. New
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poverty: A critical assessment of contemporary Thayer-Bacon, B. J. (2000). Transforming critical
perspective. International Journal of Politics, thinking. New York: Columbia University Press.
Culture, and Society 6: 269–297. Titmuss, R. M. (1968). Commitment to welfare.
Hernstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: New York: Pantheon.
Intelligence and class structure in American life. Wakefield, J. C. (1988). Psychotherapy, distributive
New York: Free Press. justice, and social work. Social Service Review
Lee, P. (1929). Social work as cause and function. 62:187–210.
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Gary Kazanjian/AP Photo

The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 75

Social workers are involved directly and indirectly in the provision of social welfare
services and need to understand how the delivery system operates. Like the social
welfare system as a whole, the delivery of services is complicated and involves different
levels of government and numerous types of agencies. The structure of various services
varies. This chapter describes the structures for social welfare services delivery, or what
we might call the “nuts and bolts” of the social welfare system.


The structure of today’s social welfare system is relatively new. As described in
Chapter 2, the nationalization of services did not evolve until the 1930s. Before
that time, services were delivered in a piecemeal fashion and often by reluctant pro-
viders. When the large and multilayered system of social welfare of today devel-
oped, social service providers became professionalized. This professionalization in
turn contributed to the multifaceted nature of social service delivery.


The year 1898 is considered the year in which social work was founded. In 1898,
the New York Charity Organization Society held its first professional social service
training program. By the 1960s, this program had become the Columbia School
of Social Work (Frumkin & Lloyd, 1995). As discussed in Chapter 2, the workers
in the major movements of the 1890s, the settlement movement and Charity Orga-
nization Societies, had major disagreements on how to work with people and
The settlers defined problems environmentally and engaged in social melioration. The
charity workers, for the most part, defined problems as personal deficiencies and empha-
sized the need for moral uplift to achieve social betterment…. The conflict continued and
left the new profession with a legacy of struggle between those who seek to change peo-
ple and those who seek to change environment. (Germain & Hartman, 1980, p. 329)

The earliest debates within the social work profession grew out of the disagree-
ment between the Settlement Movement and the Charity Organization Societies as
to whether to focus on personal deficiencies or environmental problems. This strug-
gle underlies the more than 110-year history of the social work profession.
Outside criticism of the developing profession was heard early. In 1915,
Dr. Abraham Flexner, who represented the General Education Board and was a
leading authority on graduate professional education, addressed the question “Is
Social Work a Profession?” in a paper he delivered to the National Conference on
Social Welfare. His conclusion was that social work was not a profession because
it lacked a unique methodology. “Lacking its own ‘technique which is communicable
by an educational process,’ social work was no profession” (Trattner, 1994, p. 258).
Flexner’s criticism propelled leaders in the profession to define the role of social
workers and determine what made social work unique.
Porter R. Lee, president of the National Conference of Social Work, in his 1929
presidential address, was supportive of his profession but outlined the struggle in a
76 Chapter 4

slightly different way. Lee viewed the struggle as a pull between the “cause and func-
tion” dichotomy inherent in professional social work. Lee felt that the social worker
of his day was “meeting more exacting demands for performance, assuming a more
specific type of responsibility, meeting with fair success more intricate and elusive prob-
lems” (Lee, 1929, p. 12). Because of these critiques and ongoing debate, the profes-
sional social worker was impelled to take on a more functional role by focusing on
organization, techniques, efficiency, standards, and accountability.
The challenge as Lee saw it was to find a way to balance cause, which was the
belief in ideology, and function, which was the administration of that belief. In the
end, Lee believed that although those with a cause may sway the beliefs of people,
it should be the professional social worker’s role “to administer a routine func-
tional responsibility in the spirit of the servant in a cause” (p. 20).
Bertha Capen Reynolds, who in recent years has been embraced as the inspira-
tion for a progressive social work movement, embodies the personal cost of the
struggle for social work’s professional identity. Although trained in the psychoana-
lytic tradition, she questioned the effectiveness of this practice. Her criticism of
mainstream social work practice of the 1930s led to her removal from the Smith
College School of Social Work in 1938 (Freedberg, 1986). Reynolds’ beliefs dem-
onstrated the “fundamental conflict in the definition of social work: the profes-
sional individualized approach to human beings in trouble comes up against the
intractable fact of a social service that ultimately is dependent upon the resources
of the larger community” (Freedberg, 1986, p. 105). Reynolds’s push for social ac-
tion kept her at odds with the then mainstream professional shift toward individual
In 1951, the National Council on Social Work Education supported a project to
answer the question of what social work was and was not. The task was difficult:
Any attempt to define the scope and functions of social work must grapple with
many formidable obstacles, the most insurmountable of which is the absence of
criteria that can be used to identify a professional social worker. (as cited in Brieland,
1977, p. 342)

The task force summarized the current state of the profession as indefinable
and not yet professional:
There is not yet enough of an analysis of social work practice to identify the major
functions of positions that should be classified as professional. (as cited in Brieland,
1977, p. 342)

Over the past 25 years, the debate about purpose has continued. Frumkin and
O’Connor (1985) viewed the profession as “adrift” and “failing to maintain a core
identity” by the 1980s. They argued that the profession had abandoned working
with both client and environment, and in place of that dual focus, social work lea-
ders had “called for the establishment of a psychologically oriented view of social
work practice stressing intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics and intervention
strategies aimed principally at influencing changes in individual behavior, family
or group dynamics” (p. 14).
Specht and Courtney (1994) argued that social work was not simply struggling
to find its identity, but that the profession had “abandoned its mission.” They
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 77

argued that the historical mission of social work to deal with social problems had
been upended by a move to embrace psychotherapy.
The concern of psychotherapy is with helping people to deal with feelings, perceptions,
and emotions that prevent them from performing their normal life tasks because of im-
pairment or insufficient development of emotional and cognitive functions that are inti-
mately related to the self. Social Workers help people make use of and develop community
and social resources to build connections with others and reduce alienation and isolation;
psychotherapists help people to alter, reconstruct, and improve the self. (p. 26)

Specht and Courtney (1994) held that “the popular psychotherapies have
diverted social work from its original mission and vision of the perfectibility of so-
ciety” (p. 27). They argued that there is no place for psychotherapy in social work:
“It is not possible to integrate the practice of individual psychotherapy with the
practice of communally based systems of social care” (p. 170), and they concluded
that psychotherapy “is an unsuitable mode of intervention for social work” (p. 172).
Ehrenreich (1985) summarizes this historical struggle to identify the uniqueness
and importance of the social work profession. He argues that the tension between
individual and societal change is based in values and assumptions.
On the one hand, there are those theories that emphasize the problems of the individ-
ual and see casework as the solution. On the other hand, there are the theories that
emphasize the problems of society and see social reform as the solution. These theories
are more readily understood as the ideologies and battle cries of particular groups
within and outside the profession, struggling for power in the profession, than as
exclusively true, well-validated (or even capable of being validated) theories of human
behavior (p. 227).

The struggle between emphasizing services to the individual and focusing on

social change is not the divisive issue it once was. The latest standards for social
work education open with the sentence that “The purpose of the social work pro-
fession is to promote human and community well-being” (CSWE, 2008, p. 1) giv-
ing equal weight to individual and social concerns. These Educational Policy
Standards stress intervention across all levels—individuals, families, groups, and
communities. Although as a profession we equally commit to all these levels of
practice, the ability to serve both individual needs and social reform is a constant
challenge. As you read through this chapter on service delivery, keep in mind the
historical conflict of focusing on the individual or committing to social change.


Social work owes a great deal to two distinct but overlapping movements: the Char-
ity Organization Societies and the Settlement Movement. Together they formed the
foundation of the profession of social work that exists today. They also represent
two different perspectives and traditions for serving those in need, the micro and
macro approaches.

Charity Organization Societies Three main principles guided the Charity Orga-
nization Societies: (1) urban poverty was rooted in moral and character deficiencies
78 Chapter 4

of the individual; (2) once poor people had been helped to recognize and correct
their flawed characters, poverty could be abolished; and (3) the goal of ending
poverty could only be reached if the Charitable Societies cooperated and organized
so as to stop providing overlapping resources (Boyer, 1989).
Perhaps the most famous COS worker was Mary Richmond. She began work
in Baltimore in 1891 as an administrator and a friendly visitor. Over the years,
she advocated for the training of social work professionals. She wrote Social Diag-
nosis, which presented theory and practice in how to identify clients’ problems. Her
work served as the foundation for establishing professional social work (Erickson,
Although the Charity Organization Societies were widespread, their focus on
individual change in spite of terrible economic and social conditions was not suffi-
cient to eradicate the poverty of the early 1900s. Recurring economic depressions
and mass destitution were beyond the reach of the COS movement (Katz, 1986).
Moreover, the theory on which COS was based was paternalistic and blamed the
individual for his or her condition (Ehrenreich, 1985). COS did nothing to change
the environmental conditions that contributed to impoverishment, unequal oppor-
tunities, illness, and lack of social support.
Although the COS movement failed to eradicate poverty or significantly im-
prove the lives of those in need, it made lasting contributions to the social welfare
system and the development of the social work profession (see Box 4.1). The Socie-
ties embodied the concept that social services should be provided by formal organi-
zations whose workers were trained to provide support and relief funds.
Organizations should focus on the unique concerns of individuals and not assume
that all situations were alike. Scientific methods should be used to assess needs.
This belief paved the way for research on and investigation of individual and

BOX 4.1

Charity Organization
Societies Settlement Movement
Focus: Specialized focus on individuals Focus on individuals as part
and families of their communities
Practice Casework Group work and community
Emphasis: organizing
Macro Emphasis: Coordination and organization Social reform and political
of social services action
Research Focus: Scientific methods used to Research on the community
determine need emphasizing and social needs
research on the individual assessment
Contribution to the Training of professional social Understanding strengths of
Field: service providers cultural diversity
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 79

family needs. The Societies were the forerunners of today’s family service agencies
(Erickson, 1987).

Settlement Movement Discussion of the Settlement Movement would not be

complete without mention of Jane Addams. For more than 30 years, Jane Addams
was a powerful force behind the Settlement Movement (Germain & Hartman,
1980). In 1889, she and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in Chicago, the
most famous of the settlements. Hull House was located on the west side of Chi-
cago, where poor immigrant groups lived in crowded, unhealthy, unsafe conditions.
The goals and activities of Hull House set the tone for settlements across the nation.
Most settlement houses were founded in poor neighborhoods occupied mostly
by recent immigrants. The early goals of the settlement movement were to help so-
cialize people to their new homeland and alleviate the tremendous economic and
social disparity between the newcomers and the established wealthier classes. Settle-
ment leaders emphasized the need to direct reform efforts toward the environment.
Activities within the settlement movement included social clubs, which provided
vocational training and educational opportunities, recreation programs, play-
grounds and gymnasiums, and classes in drama, music, and art. Although socializa-
tion was a key element, the goals of helping immigrants adapt to their new home
and of shrinking the gap between the wealthy and the poor were always significant
in settlement work. The settlements, more than any other institutions in America,
emphasized work with immigrants and minorities through intelligent and sympa-
thetic approaches (Kogut, 1972).
After establishment of Hull House, the settlement movement grew rapidly. In
1891, there were six settlements; by 1897, 74 settlements; and by 1900, more than
100 settlements. The movement peaked in 1910 with 400 settlements (Davis,
1984). The settlements provided places for local people to meet and discuss the
politics of the day. The settlement houses became clearinghouses for urban reform
and played a vital role in the progressive, or social justice, movement of the 1900s
(Trattner, 1999).
The settlement movement is credited with contributing to the establishment of
a number of social reforms. These included regulation of child labor, compulsory
school attendance laws, maximum hours and minimum wages for female workers,
workers’ compensation, mothers’ pensions, new standards for public sanitation and
health, special courts for juvenile offenders, visiting nurses, and visiting teachers
(Chambers, 1974).
Jane Addams herself was very involved in efforts for environmental reform and
became a political figure. She was a powerful public speaker and prolific writer
who used both venues to reach the American people. For 20 years she enjoyed
public admiration, but she fell out of favor with the public when she expressed op-
position to World War I. She was an outspoken leader of the peace movement and
one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
(Addams, 1922; 1937). Years after the war, her efforts on behalf of world peace
were recognized. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Although she was at
odds with social workers who focused on individual change rather than social re-
form, she was universally admired.
80 Chapter 4

Settlement workers believed they could solve social problems by living in poor
neighborhoods. They were reformers who helped people who lacked power to or-
ganize locally and nationally. Settlements were a strong force during the progres-
sive era and contributed to the development of social welfare policies and
organizations, including the National Child Labor Committee, National Women’s
Trade Union League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peo-
ple, and American Civil Liberties Union (Davis, 1984). When the American public
shifted its focus during World War I, however, the settlements declined in impor-
tance. The prosperity of the postwar period masked the concerns of the poor, and
the pressing social needs that had given rise to the settlement movement seemed to
dissipate. Nevertheless, the settlement movement made significant contributions to
ways of providing social welfare services.
The settlement movement is a model for social work involvement in social wel-
fare policy and political action (see Box 4.1). Group work, community organiza-
tion, and social action emerged from the settlements. Settlements such as Hull
House were very involved in gathering data on their surrounding communities and
used their findings to document the need for social change. The settlement move-
ment embodied the values of the progressive era: helping economically and socially
disadvantaged people integrate into society, while simultaneously working for
structural changes designed to improve labor conditions and alleviate poverty.


The work of the Charity Organization Societies and the settlements, although dedi-
cated to public service, was conducted through organizations that were private so-
cial service agencies, that is, they were separate from the government. As discussed
in Chapter 2, the severity of the Great Depression brought the federal government
into the provision of social welfare services. Since that time, all levels of govern-
ment—federal, state, and local—have become deeply embedded as providers, fun-
ders, and facilitators of human services.

Today it is impossible to fully separate private social services from government ser-
vices. The government regulates, sponsors, and financially contributes to social
welfare services. The relationship between private organizations and the govern-
ment is complicated. Interactions take place more often behind the scenes than at
the point where services are directly provided. For example, although the federal
government, in partnership with state governments, funds the Medicaid program
(medical assistance to low-income people), medical services are actually provided
by a variety of public and private groups. It is important to understand the rela-
tionship between the private sector and the government because it is crucial to the
operation of the social welfare system in the United States.
Public involvement in social services is widespread because there are so many
levels of government, as demonstrated by the statistics in Box 4.2. Thousands of
government bodies, including states, cities, counties, and sovereign tribal organiza-
tions, are involved in the social service system of this nation.
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 81

BOX 4.2

U.S. federal government 1

State governments 50
Local governments 87,525
County 3,034
Municipal 19,429
Township/town 16,504
School district 13,506
Special district 35,052
Tribal governments 1 for each registered tribe (over 300)
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007

Federal Government The federal government is the largest player in the social wel-
fare arena. The federal government spends more than a trillion dollars each year on di-
rect and indirect assistance. For example, in 2006 the federal government transferred
$546 billion for Social Security payments; $407 billion for Medicare payments; $256
billion for health care under Medicaid; and billions more for education, social services,
and community development (Social Security Administration, 2008). Much of these
funds were channeled through state and local governments. In 2004, states and locali-
ties received $426 billion from the federal government to cover public welfare, educa-
tion, transportation, health, housing, and community development (U.S. Census
Bureau, 2007). In addition, the federal government sponsors services related to na-
tional defense, agriculture, scientific and space research, transportation, and the ad-
ministration of justice. In fact, the federal government is involved in almost every
aspect of citizens’ lives. Therefore, when one speaks about social well-being in this
country and the delivery of social welfare services, one cannot ignore the role of the
federal government, which is pervasive and of the utmost significance.
In addition to funding services, the federal government mandates and regulates
the policies that govern the social service arena. Federal overview of the social wel-
fare system is conducted through laws, regulations, and court actions. These ac-
tions are described in detail in subsequent chapters. This chapter explores the
structures of service delivery and the relationships between the government and
the providers of services.

State Governments State governments typically operate in a similar fashion to

that of the federal government. Each state is headed by a governor, just as the
president heads the nation. Legislators are elected to fill each statehouse, which is
similar to Congress. Departments run the day-to-day operations of each state.
States, like the federal government, raise revenues through taxes and fees and, in
turn, use those funds to provide services. State governments often receive federal
funds for the provision of social services. This fact is particularly important in un-
derstanding the operations of the social welfare system.
82 Chapter 4

For example, the federal government may pass a policy regarding care for
abused children. The law outlines how federal funds will be distributed to state
governments, which will either offer the service or make a contract with a private
agency that will offer the service. Thus, a local agency might provide parent train-
ing for families in which abusive behaviors have occurred. This training service is
provided by the local agency through a contract with the state, which in turn pays
for the service with federal dollars. The service offered fulfills the federal govern-
ment goal outlined by the policy regarding care for abused children. This is the typ-
ical process of service delivery in the United States. It is a mixed system in which
federal, state, and local governments work with private organizations in making
policies, raising funds, and delivering services.

Local Governments Local governments vary greatly, and include cities, town-
ships, counties, and districts. There are about 90,000 such government bodies in
the United States today. The number and diversity of these governing entities
make it impossible to summarize their characteristics and operations. Local gov-
erning bodies may include city or town councils, school boards, sanitation commis-
sions, and fire districts, just to name a few. All of these bodies are public and
therefore subject to public policies and regulations, and all have close relationships
with elected officials. As government organizations, they are open to public inspec-
tion, scrutiny, and accountability.

Tribal Governments There are over 300 officially recognized tribes in the con-
tiguous United States (Nagel, 1997) and possibly another 200 in Alaska and
Hawaii. Some tribes are still not officially recognized. All recognized tribes in the
lower 48 states are officially sovereign. In recent years, the courts have extended
recognition of sovereignty to Alaskan Natives. Tribal sovereignty for Hawaiian
Nationals, however, is still being debated. Each officially recognized tribe is a dis-
tinct sovereign entity. As a sovereign nation, each tribe is responsible for manage-
ment of its local policies and governing actions. The history of sovereignty reflects
the history of federal treatment of native nations in the United States. Sovereignty
today means that tribal governments operate autonomously from state govern-
ments and are responsive to federal law and eligible for federal services. Tribes
have a long history of forced assimilation (see Chapter 5) and denial of autonomy.
Sovereignty stresses autonomy for Native American tribes and as such is an impor-
tant value to native peoples. Sovereignty means that tribal governments are respon-
sible for the management of federal resources for social services in the same way
that state governments are.


Today there is much controversy over the role of public agencies in the provision
of social welfare services. The dislike of government involvement in social welfare
has ebbed and flowed over the years, and gained strong support during the 1980s
and 1990s. Sentiments such as “Less government is better” and “Get government
off our backs” have been voiced by policy analysts, radio personalities, taxpayers,
and even politicians. The pros and cons of public social welfare are raised in Box 4.3.
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 83


Public service means equal treatment by Should the government be in the business
law. All who are eligible, no matter how of people’s personal lives? In what ways do
severe or complex the need, will be we want government intervention, and in
served. No one can be turned away by a what ways do we dislike government inter-
public service agency if they fit the criteria vention? A supporting argument is that if we
for service. One opposing argument is that value social justice, then we must help all
public services can create dependency. If people, and do so fairly. Public service is
the government takes care of needs, what part of a socially just society.
responsibility does the individual have?

Social workers have differing opinions on the subject. Their work is centered on social
well-being and hence the role of public agencies in providing for human need. The
Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) prescribes public participation in a number of ways, in-
cluding promotion of the general welfare of society, facilitation of informed participa-
tion by the public in shaping social policy and institutions, and service in public
emergencies (Sections 6.01, 6.02, and 6.03). Social workers are mandated to advocate
for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions (Section 6.04).
Although these actions can be carried out in private settings, the contribution to public
well-being is paramount. Therefore, the shift away from a positive view of public
involvement and the denigration of public service is contrary to some of the essential
tenets of the social work profession that emphasize public service.
Besides the social work value in public service, there is another fact that com-
pels people to support government funding and provision of services. Much of the
work done by public social service providers would not be done by private organi-
zations. There are numerous social services that promote well-being but cannot be
done well with an economic profit. Providing emergency medical treatment to people
without insurance or the means to pay would bankrupt a private medical facility. Pro-
viding schools for children with mental and physical disabilities would not be possible
if each family had to pay for all the services and facilities needed. How could each of
us afford to ensure that streets and highways are paved and maintained properly?
How much profit can be made by private companies for such services? Historically
the role of government has been to promote social well-being, even when services are
costly and not profitable. In fact, the most pressing reasons for government services
has been precisely in those areas that the private sector cannot operate profitably or
prices are driven high by the need to be profitable. The debate over health insurance
rests on this dilemma—is it better in terms of cost, coverage, and quality of services
to provide health insurance through the federal government or through the current
system of private health insurance companies? Of course this question is complicated,
like so many areas of social welfare policy. The federal government already provides
health insurance for some groups, such as the elderly through Medicare and low-
income people through Medicaid. So the real question is, should the federal govern-
ment extend its provision of health insurance to all citizens?
84 Chapter 4


Did you know that 22 million people were income through government contracts for
employed directly by federal, state, and services. Therefore, when we call for the
local governments with a payroll of $72 reduction of government services and say
billion in 2005? This represents 15 per- that “less government is better,” we are
cent of all employed people in the United also calling for cutting jobs and employment
States. That means that about one out of for many American workers. This creates a
six people receives a paycheck directly public dilemma that is often sidestepped
from a government organization. Countless in discussions of public services.
other employees indirectly receive their Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007

Another reality is that public social agencies are staffed by people from the
community. About one of six people works directly for the federal, state, or local
government (see Box 4.4). Countless other people are paid from funds that are sup-
plemented by government monies. For example, the public transportation system is
run by a public agency but uses equipment that is purchased from private compa-
nies. Contracts for purchase are funded by public money but allow private compa-
nies to employ millions of workers. Therefore, removing government from the
social service system would affect every facet of citizens’ lives.

The social welfare system in this country is a mixture of the public and private sec-
tors. Private groups dominated the early days of social work; large-scale public
government involvement took over in the 20th century; and over the past 25 years
the private sector has again moved to the forefront. The move to privatization has
not really been a departure from public involvement but rather a public contracting
out of services, that is, services are funded by public money but delivered by pri-
vate organizations. For example, community mental health services are funded by
the federal and state governments and provided both by for-profit behavioral
health care companies and nonprofit organizations.
It is important to distinguish between these social welfare providers. The three
entities, public agencies, private for-profit agencies, and private nonprofit agencies,
have significantly different goals and missions. Austin (2002) describes the three as
follows: Nonprofit organizations have deeply held values, and the services offered
are a reflection of those values. Governmental or public organizations are subject
to political majorities and political power. Usually the mission is related to the de-
livery of public goods or services. For-profit organizations are designed to produce
economic benefits, typically for the shareholders or owners of the company.
Another way to distinguish the three types of social service providers is by their
legal titles. Public refers to government; voluntary refers to private nonprofit; and
commercial refers to private for-profit (Burch, 1999). Public agencies include de-
partments, service entities, boards, and businesses such as Amtrak railway service.
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 85

Voluntary providers, although private, do not have the legal authorization to make
a profit on the services they offer. Commercial providers are legally designed to be
financially profitable as they provide services.

Nonprofit Organizations Nonprofit organizations are defined as voluntary char-

ity groups that fall under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3). This distinction
means that the organization uses all of its income for the delivery of cultural, edu-
cational, social, or health services and is accountable to the public through exter-
nal audits of its finances. As a 501(c)(3) agency, it cannot participate in partisan
politics (i.e., advocate for a candidate or lobby for specific issues). There is a provi-
sion for nonprofit voluntary organizations to engage in political advocacy through
the creation of a separate entity subject to Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4).
Although both types of agencies are nonprofit, the biggest tax distinction is that dona-
tions to a 501(c)(3) organization are tax deductible whereas donations to a 501(c)(4)
organization are not. This separation of function between service delivery and political
action is monitored by the Internal Revenue Service, a public federal agency.
Tax laws are one of the major ways that government monitors the actions of
social service delivery agencies. Functions and roles are also mandated by tax
laws. For example, donations to public institutions are not tax deductible. For this
reason, public universities develop private foundations whose roles and obligations
fall under the laws regulating 501(c)(3) organizations. Social work practitioners
should be aware of these regulations because so many agencies are administered
under them.

For-Profit Organizations Commercial agencies that provide social services oper-

ate on private business principles. The goal is to provide services in economical
ways but also create a funding profit. This private format is favored by those who
believe that efficiency and effectiveness are enhanced when profit principles are
applied. Those opposing it feel that human needs cannot be treated effectively or
humanely through the private market goal of making a profit. See Box 4.5 for some
frequently asked questions about the value of for-profit and nonprofit organizations.


Understanding the values that have influenced social welfare policy and the theories
of how the social welfare system evolved is necessary preparation for analyzing
current policies and influencing the creation of new policies. In the next section of
this chapter, terms used to describe types of social welfare services are defined. The
social welfare system offers a combination of forms of assistance, and they account
for most of the social services provided. Which form of assistance is used is based
on the values held by the persons responsible for shaping social welfare policy.


The Social Security Act of 1935 codified two parts of our social welfare system:
public assistance and social insurance. Originally, planners thought that these two
86 Chapter 4


What are the pros and cons of for-profit Why supporters of private nonprofit
and nonprofit social services? services favor this approach:

Why supporters of private for-profit The motives for providing service are
services favor this approach: based on a mission that is related to
caring and concern.
For-profit agencies can earn profits,
which can translate into higher salaries Nonprofit services can be cost-effective
for workers and more money for inno- because they are not subject to all the
vations and new technology. limitations of public regulations.
Financial stability depends on clients When no profit is drawn out, there are
choosing to use an agency, so the more funds to use for services and
competition for users promotes higher- rates can be lower for clients.
level services. Caseloads and staffing can be regu-
Use of business principles and tech- lated by the agency.
niques can enhance profitability. Nonprofit services embrace volunteers
and therefore can promote the spirit of
Why critics of private for-profit services volunteerism.
dislike this approach:
Why critics of private nonprofit services
The best way to care for human need
dislike this approach:
is not always profitable.
The drive to make a profit leads to The agencies must raise funds, and such
serving only those who can afford to sources of revenue are unpredictable.
pay and have less severe problems. Fundraising can be time-consuming
Professional judgment about what is and uses money that does not go to
best for the client gets ignored if it is service provision.
expensive and instead ensuring a Agencies can be inefficient and so
profit after all services are delivered specialized that management and
becomes primary. services are not effective.

approaches to support would complement each other and that in time, social insur-
ance would erase the need for public assistance.
Social insurance benefits are cash benefits in the form of a transfer of money
from the government to the individual. Eligibility for benefits differs, however. For
social insurance, individuals pay into a program over time in exchange for future
coverage. Social Security is the most prominent example of social insurance (see
Chapter 7). Simply stated, most employees pay a prescribed amount into the sys-
tem based on their earnings and that amount is matched or supplemented by their
employers. They become eligible for benefits when they retire or become disabled.
Those who are dependent on a covered person, typically the wage earner’s spouse
or children, become eligible to receive benefits if the worker dies. They are re-
garded as survivors and are entitled to certain benefits based on the employment
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 87

history of the worker. The recipients receive a monthly cash payment based on the
contributions made while the wage earner was working. This system allows the in-
dividual complete freedom to choose how the money is spent. Unlike in the cash
assistance program, a person’s need does not affect how much he or she receives.
Benefits are based on the contributions made, regardless of a person’s financial sit-
uation at the time benefits are paid.
The overriding concept behind social insurance is that because a person has
paid in, he or she is entitled to receive benefits. In addition, there is a shared re-
sponsibility for the program. The social insurance system is not a personal savings
account where benefits total exactly what a person paid in over the years. Rather, a
standardized formula is used that calculates a person’s benefits based on years
worked and earnings history, with a set bottom and ceiling below or above which
no one can receive benefits. An individual may receive more in benefits than he or
she paid in or less than he or she paid in. The program is designed to insure society
as a whole, not simply individuals.


The most common form of public assistance is government payment of money
from general taxes to those in need. Recipients of cash assistance receive a check
for an amount that is determined according to a particular program’s rules and
the recipient’s characteristics. The recipient is free to spend the money as he or she
sees fit, although the money is intended to pay for basic necessities such as housing,
food, and clothing. Often cash assistance raises the most resistance from the public
because the recipient is in complete control of how the money is ultimately spent.
Because of that resistance, cash assistance benefits are typically paid at a lower
level than social insurance benefits. For example, in 2006 the average monthly So-
cial Security benefit for a retired worker was $1,044 compared to $423 for a poor
elderly person under the cash assistance program of Supplemental Security Income
and $166 for a person in the public assistance program Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families (Social Security Administration, 2008).


In-kind benefits are a more limited form of public assistance. In-kind benefits are
services or commodities provided to eligible recipients. Medical care and public
housing are examples of in-kind benefits. Rather than receiving cash, people receive
the service directly. For example, instead of receiving money for rent, a person lives
in an apartment that is paid for by the government. In place of choosing any doc-
tor and paying for services, a person qualifies to receive medical treatment at a
health clinic. Individuals receiving these benefits are not allowed to have any role
in the exchange of resources and often have only limited choices in the provision
of the service.

Vouchers are a cross between in-kind benefits and cash assistance. Vouchers are
earmarked for a specific service or commodity, but the recipient is free to use
88 Chapter 4

them as he or she sees fit. Recent debate has centered on proposals for educational
vouchers. Parents receiving a voucher valid for a child’s school tuition could choose
which school the child would attend. The Food Stamp Program operates in the
same way. Although food stamps are most often considered in-kind benefits, they
more closely resemble vouchers. Food stamps can be used only for food, but the re-
cipient can choose the store at which to use them. Food stamp credit cards are pro-
grammed for a certain cash amount. They cannot be exchanged for money,
however; they can only be used for food items.

The term entitlement is often misused in discussions about social welfare services.
The most common use is in complaints about those who seem arrogant about re-
ceiving aid (“He feels entitled to have anything he wants!”). This kind of “entitle-
ment” has nothing to do with an entitlement program. According to budget
regulations, entitlement programs are mandated by law to give aid to all who are
eligible to receive the aid regardless of the total cost in any given year or fiscal pe-
riod. For example, Social Security is an entitlement program. No matter how many
people are eligible for Social Security in a fiscal year, the federal government must
pay each person what he or she are due by law. Even if the government needs to
borrow money from other places to pay for benefits, the public is entitled to receive
them. Contrary to public opinion, welfare, or public assistance, is no longer an en-
titlement program. The funding for it is capped, and when the federal allocation
runs out for a given year, states and localities do not receive any additional funding
to cover the programs. Of course the government itself sets these rules. Social Secu-
rity has been an entitlement program since its inception in 1935, whereas public as-
sistance was changed from its original design in 1935 as an entitlement program to
a capped, limited program as part of the welfare reform legislation of 1996. The
implications of this funding system are explored in detail in Chapters 7 and 8.

Social investment is the spending of public money to help people and communities
grow and develop, so that individuals will enjoy better social well-being. For exam-
ple, the Head Start program could be considered a social investment. Low-income
children are provided with educational and social services at a young age to offset
the possible disadvantages of growing up poor. The theory is that providing these
services to very young children will “pay off” as a social investment when the chil-
dren attend school and are better prepared educationally and socially. Higher edu-
cation student loans are another form of social investment. Helping students pay
for college who could not otherwise do so is a way for the government to help
more adults acquire the education and skills that are valuable for the economic de-
velopment of the nation. Some people argue that dollars spent for social facilities
such as public libraries and parks and interstate highways are also forms of social
investment. These social welfare expenditures promote social and economic growth
and therefore are considered an investment in future social productivity.
The Delivery of Social Welfare Services 89

Economic development is a form of social investment specifically designed to en-
hance community and individual economic growth. Policy forms of this approach
include the creation of enterprise zones. The government provides tax incentives
for private industries to develop certain urban areas (enterprise zones), which in
turn creates employment opportunities for local residents. Increased employment in
low-income areas will pay off as the area’s economy becomes stronger. Economi-
cally sound neighborhoods tend to have lower crime rates and higher outcomes
for future generations. Preferential tax treatments such as reduced or waived prop-
erty taxes for private building ventures is another example of economic develop-
ment through social welfare policy and spending. The goal is that by making
private building ventures more attractive, companies will develop areas of cities
and communities that might otherwise not be developed because the cost or the an-
ticipated profit is too low to attract private development. The thinking follows that
with these private developments, new jobs and additional revenue will flow. Pub-
licly funded sports stadiums fall under this rationale for government subsidized


The types of assistance described are the most widely used ways of delivering social
welfare services. Each type varies by degree of individual versus social choice and
regulation, and who makes decisions for whom. The question of whether the gov-
ernment should provide social support or whether private organizations should
provide it continues to be debated. Which side one takes reflects the degree of
one’s belief in the value of individual responsibility versus social responsibility and
also the extent to which one values personal self-sufficiency versus social support.
As social work professionals, we have a mission that outlines public support and
therefore the provision of social welfare services directly or in partnership with our
Analyzing underlying values and beliefs to our social service delivery system
returns us to the issue raised in the beginning of the chapter, whether to focus
on serving individuals or changing social structures. Sometimes, as recipients of
public dollars, social service organizations are caught between the two. What if
your social service agency, which is funded through public dollars, finds mental
health services to treat depression for poor individuals is never ending because
so many of their life conditions due to living in a poor community are intracta-
ble? Do you use the public money for individual intervention to help the person
deal with the depression, or to change the entire neighborhood to develop more
jobs, better housing, and safer living conditions? This is the micro/macro prac-
tice debate complicated by the funding mandates. Sometimes social service prac-
titioners are hesitant to demand social reform because it feels like “biting the
hand that feeds you,” that is, fighting against the very structure that funds your
job. This can create a very powerful tension for social service providers and
their agencies.
90 Chapter 4


The system for delivery of social services is complicated. Most services rely on
some form of collaboration between the public and private domains. The relation-
ship can vary by community, agency, and even specific service. This mix often
makes it difficult to track the flow of funds and regulations. The strong connection
between public and private sectors is evident, underscoring the necessity that all so-
cial service funders, policy makers, and providers work together to ensure a strong
and effective social welfare system.

Key Terms
Charity Organization private social service nonprofit in-kind benefits
Societies (COS) agencies organizations vouchers
Mary Richmond contracting out for-profit organizations entitlement
Settlement Movement public public assistance
social investment
Jane Addams voluntary social insurance
economic development
commercial cash assistance

Questions for Discussion

1. What are the key differences between the 3. What are the strengths of public social
Charity Organization Societies and the services? What are the weaknesses?
Settlement Movement? 4. What are the strengths of private social
2. How are the differences in the COS and services? What are the weaknesses?
Settlement Movement apparent in social 5. How might you reconcile the tension
work practice today? between working to help individuals and
working to change social systems?

1. Visit a social service agency. Find out if it is agree? Do you think that social work has
a for-profit or nonprofit organization. How left its foundation and is not true to its
does it get its funding? Does it receive original mission?
private funds or public funds, or both? 4. Identify a social service provided in your
2. Make a list of services or benefits provided community. Trace its delivery back through
by a local social service agency. Can you all the stages of service to its origin. Are the
identify whether the services are in-kind state and local levels involved? Does the
services, cash assistance, vouchers, or social authority or funding, or both, go back to the
insurance? Explain the differences. federal government?
3. Get a copy of the book Unfaithful Angels: 5. Visit a low-income neighborhood. What
How Social Work Has Abandoned Its social services are provided? Do the services
Mission by Specht and Courtney. Review stress individual intervention or community
the key points of the authors. Do you change?
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David Young-Wolff/PhotoEdit

Social Justice and Civil Rights 93

The issue of rights—what people deserve and what they are entitled to—versus the
issue of social welfare services—what the government or other groups in power are
willing to provide—dates back to the earliest years of the United States. Questions
regarding the government’s role in ensuring and protecting rights (i.e., What is a right
and what is not a right? and What rights exist for whom?) dominate social welfare
policy debates today. Affirmative action, abortion rights, gay rights, and immigration
policies are all examples of social issues that involve questions of civil rights and social
welfare services. Civil rights are rights to which people are entitled because they are
members of society. Rights are often ensured and protected through laws, resources,
and services. Social welfare services, on the other hand, are provided only when
deemed necessary by a majority of voters. Civil rights are protected and guaranteed by
the law, whereas social welfare services are created and dispensed in accord with the
decisions of policy makers. Therefore, social welfare services are more easily changed
and rescinded.
Social justice is an important component of civil rights. As defined in
Chapter 1, social justice reflects fairness to all in society. All people have the same
basic rights, protections, opportunities, and social benefits, as well as the same so-
cial obligations. When those rights are not upheld or there are barriers to achieving
fairness, government has been called upon to ensure the establishment of social jus-
tice. But government is a reflection of the majority’s will, so there has been, and
continues to be, a struggle to achieve social justice in our society.


Three barriers may prevent the achievement of social justice: prejudice, discrimina-
tion, and oppression. Prejudice is a belief or attitude of dislike for a group based on
myths and misconceptions. Although it is difficult to have a belief but not act on it,
it is possible for people to be prejudiced in their thinking but not act in a socially
unjust manner. When prejudice is acted upon, discrimination results. Discrimina-
tion is the action of treating people differently based on their identity, because of
prejudice. When discrimination becomes widespread and systematic, it becomes
oppression. Therefore, thinking a racial group is inferior is prejudice; denying a
member of that racial group a job because you think the person is inferior is dis-
crimination; discriminatory actions by a number of people constitute oppression.
Prejudice, discrimination, and oppression occur in numerous forms, and each can
build on the other two. They affect people of racial, cultural, sexual identity, abil-
ity, class, gender, and age groups. Box 5.1 outlines the most pervasive forms of so-
cial injustice that plague our society.
Although the legal and political rights of citizens have been a public concern
throughout American history, civil rights protections have been, and continue to
be, slow in coming for some members of society. For example, early citizenship
rights such as the eligibility to vote were restricted to white men, generally those
who owned property. Women were not protected by government laws to the same
extent as men for most of American history. For hundreds of years, African Amer-
icans and American Indians were not allowed the same rights as whites solely be-
cause of racial prejudice. In spite of the limited nature of early civil rights in this
94 Chapter 5

BOX 5.1

Racism: Belief or doctrine that inherent Homophobia: Unreasonable fear of or

differences among various human races antipathy toward homosexuals and
determine cultural or individual achieve- homosexuality
ment, usually involving the idea that one’s Classism: Biased or discriminatory atti-
own race is superior; policy or system of tude based on distinctions made between
government based on such a doctrine social or economic classes
Ethnocentrism: Belief in the inherent Xenophobia: Unreasonable fear or hatred
superiority of one’s own ethnic group or of foreigners or strangers
Ageism: Belief in the superiority of youth
Sexism: Discrimination or prejudice over age
based on a person’s gender, especially Source: Based on Webster’s College Dictionary,
discrimination against women 1991

country, later periods of social upheaval, political organizing, and public outcry
brought about major civil rights changes. The efforts continue today.
Discussions of people’s civil rights raise the issues of inequality and social injus-
tice. When one group has rights and protections that others do not, it creates a sense
of relative inequality. When only men had the right to vote, for example, there was
an inequality for women. When only whites could sit in the front of public buses,
African Americans were being treated in an unequal way. For people or groups
who perceive that their rights or access to services and resources are blocked, there
is an imbalance. That imbalance is inequality and social injustice.
Human rights are also important. The term sometimes is used synonymously
with civil rights, but it often is considered to have a broader scope because it
conveys political and humanitarian concerns. The strongest statement outlining the
need for human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed
without a dissenting vote by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The dec-
laration calls for all nations to recognize “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and
inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and for all nations to “pro-
mote social progress and better standards of life.” Therefore, human rights include
civil rights and social justice, with the goal of making all nations places where social,
political, and economic progress and improved standards of life are promoted. The
international context of human rights is discussed more fully in Chapter 13.
This book posits that certain rights, such as citizenship, freedom of expression,
and protection from discrimination, are or should be available to all people,
regardless of age, income, gender, race, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or
gender expression. For these rights to be guaranteed, they must be supported by
the power of public law and government. When laws are created and enforced to
uphold civil rights, people are protected in every facet of their lives from discrimi-
nation. This chapter traces the history of civil rights in America, discusses those
rights, and highlights the social welfare policy implications of civil rights.
Social Justice and Civil Rights 95


The foundation in law for protection of people’s rights rests with the Constitution
(The Constitution of the United States, 1986). Following the Revolutionary War,
the newly established leaders of the nation turned their attention to developing a
system of government that was more democratic than the British monarchy. The
Constitution, as originally passed and later amended, serves as the basis for civil
rights and protections in America. It provides the framework for our system of
government, our electoral process, rights related to personal expression and behav-
ior, and protection of the nation’s and the citizens’ well-being.
The United States Constitution, consisting of seven articles, was agreed to in
1789. Article I outlines the legislative branch, and Articles II and III establish the
executive and judicial branches, respectively. The separation of powers was deemed
necessary to provide a system of “checks and balances” with the design of “popu-
lar control of government” (Oleszek, 2007, p. 3). The structure of our government
and details about the three branches can be found in Chapter 14.
Furthermore, the Constitution settled the question of whether the government
should be representative of the national citizenry or a federation representing states
(Jacobson, 1987). A national government would be based on representation ac-
cording to population, whereas a federal system would be based on representation
of the states. For large states with great numbers of people, representation accord-
ing to population was advantageous. For small states, equal representation for each
state was much more appealing. Together, the House of Representatives and the
Senate make up the Congress of the United States. The system that prevailed was
a compromise between these two positions.
The form of government established was based on a bicameral, or two-chamber,
system. The House of Representatives was made up of members elected by the
people according to the population of each state, and the Senate was made up of
two members from each state, regardless of the state’s size. Senators were originally
chosen by state legislatures, but in 1913 the Constitution was amended to allow for
direct election of senators by citizens. This system remains in effect today.
Although the question of representation was settled through development of
the democratic process, participation in the process of selection was limited. The
right to vote was initially addressed by the Constitution in a general way, with the
specifics left to states. Over time, the Constitution was amended to more clearly de-
lineate the parameters of the right to vote. Voting as a specific right took decades
to resolve and is discussed in further detail in the next section.
The Bill of Rights identifies the central tenets of civil rights in America (see Box
5.2). It consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified
in 1791, two years after the first Constitutional Convention and the original pas-
sage of the Constitution. The First Amendment protects freedom of religion,
speech, and the press; the right of people to assemble peaceably; and the right of
people to petition government:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of
the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of
96 Chapter 5


Amendment I: Congress shall make no law re- deprived of life, liberty, or property without due
specting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting process of law; nor shall private property be taken
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom for public use, without just compensation.
of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the ac-
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Govern- cused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public
ment for a redress of grievances. trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district
Amendment II: A well regulated Militia, being nec- wherein the crime shall have been committed,
essary to the security of a free State, the right of the which district shall have been previously ascer-
people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. tained by law, and to be informed of the nature
Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace and cause of the accusation; to be confronted
be quartered in any house, without the Consent of with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory
the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to
prescribed by law. have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII: In suits at common law, where the
Amendment IV: The right of the people to be se-
value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the
cure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,
right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact
against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall
tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any
not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but
court of the United States, than according to the
upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affir-
rules of common law.
mation, and particularly describing the place to be
searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be re-
quired, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and
Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer
unusual punishments inflicted.
for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on
a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, ex- Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitu-
cept in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or tion, of certain rights, shall not be construed to
in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War deny or disparage others retained by the people.
or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the
the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited
or limb; nor shall he be compelled in any criminal by it to the states, are reserved to the States
case to be a witness against himself, nor be respectively, or to the people.

These protections create a foundation of civil rights in this country. Other amend-
ments were added as the struggle for civil rights expanded the meaning of these
liberties. Today the Constitution and all its amendments serve as the basis for legal
decisions in this country.


The right to vote was not clearly spelled out by the Constitution. Decisions about
the specifics of who was eligible to vote were left to the states. Consequently, after
ratification of the Constitution and prior to the Civil War, voting was predomi-
nantly a right of white men who owned property. This meant that many other
Social Justice and Civil Rights 97

Americans were denied the right to vote. Because voting entitles one to a voice in
government and political decisions, and voting was restricted to white men, most
public policies ignored or did not protect the rights of all people. Women, slaves,
and those who did not own land were not envisioned as full citizens. For almost
100 years, these omissions in civil rights were ignored by those in power. Not until
after the Civil War did the government have to make concessions to protect the
rights of more citizens.


The Civil War began the movement to expand the rights of African Americans.
Until the Civil War, black slaves brought from Africa lacked any civil rights or
personal protections. In fact, they were considered the property of their owners.
One of the political outcomes of the Civil War was that the federal government
intervened and passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the Fifteenth
Amendment in 1870.
The original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to establish the full
rights of citizenship and equality for all, including African Americans:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction
thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state
shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citi-
zens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the
equal protection of the laws.

The words “persons” and “citizens” in the Constitution referred to men. Conse-
quently, the rights of citizenship were extended to all men but not to women.
Two years later, in 1870, the issue of voting rights was clearly spelled out in the
Fifteenth Amendment, which gave the right to vote to any male, regardless of race
or color:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the
United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of

Although the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to give freedom and civil
rights to former slaves, interpretation in the courts limited its impact. The Supreme
Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 mandated that equal protection did not
preclude segregation. The decision justified separate but equal public facilities.
However, the government’s will to enforce the decision was minimal, and the his-
torical result was that segregation and “separate and unequal” actions dominated
public policy and practice. (Dye, 2008, p. 243)
Theoretically, these constitutional amendments gave African-American men the
right to vote. In practical terms, particularly in the South, local rules and regula-
tions made it impossible for most former slaves to actually vote. Requirements
such as poll taxes and literacy tests were used to bar people from registering to
vote. Without paying a tax and passing a literacy test, a man could not register to
vote in the South. Without first registering, a man could not cast a vote in any
98 Chapter 5

After the Civil War, in spite of emancipation, former slaves who stayed in the
South were poor and had little access to education. Southern state and local gov-
ernments enforced local rules that kept African Americans marginalized by making
it impossible for them to obtain adequate educational and financial resources.
These local rules and regulations, together with rampant racial discrimination, pre-
vented former slaves from owning land, running businesses, or holding well-paying
jobs. Moreover, poll taxes and literacy tests were not the only barriers that kept
African Americans from voting. Voter registration was conducted by local officials.
When African Americans attempted to register, intimidation and fear tactics were
used to discourage them (Polenberg, 1980). Therefore, local laws and practices ef-
fectively nullified the impact of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
The impact of these blocking tactics lasted for almost 100 years. This example
illustrates how local control and policy setting can be more powerful and effective
than federal government rule and move prejudice and discrimination to the level of
oppression. In addition, the poll tax and literacy tests are classic examples of insti-
tutional racism, in which public laws and regulations are used to differentiate and
discriminate according to race.
For African Americans in the South, voting did not become a reality until pas-
sage of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in
1965. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which barred the use of the poll tax, was
reinforced by the congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting
Rights Act put an end to literacy tests and made federal registrars responsible for
enrolling voters. The impact of these laws was immediate. For example, in Selma,
Alabama, one of the cities where civil rights were most strongly contested, on the
day of enactment 381 African Americans were registered to vote. That was more
than the total number who had registered in the previous 65 years (Polenberg,


For women, the legal right to vote was slow in coming. Women activists began
their struggle as early as the 1840s to achieve suffrage, the right to vote. Frustra-
tion over the denial of women’s roles in making public policy decisions prompted
women to organize to gain the right to vote. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and
other early reformers organized the first women’s rights conference, the Seneca
Falls Convention (Boulding, 1992). This meeting marked the official beginning of
the women’s suffrage movement in America.
The Civil War shifted reform activities to the abolition of slavery. Women’s
groups tried unsuccessfully to include sex in the protections of the Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments. Abolitionists were concerned that adding women’s rights
would complicate their efforts (V. Klein, 1984). Thus, women’s rights groups, pri-
marily the National Woman Suffrage Association formed by Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, continued to organize and press for the right to vote
without the support of other rights movements.
As discussed in Chapter 2, the progressive era came about in response to the
social changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization at the turn of the
20th century. Women were deeply affected by these changes. More women had
Social Justice and Civil Rights 99

entered the labor force and had become part of other social reform movements. It
was the impact of World War I and the large number of women in the labor force,
however, that finally influenced the political acceptance of women’s suffrage
(Axinn & Stern, 2008). The role of women in the war effort made it clear that
women were active participants in the nation’s economic and political realms. The
right of women to vote was finally made law in the Nineteenth Amendment to the
Constitution. The amendment was first introduced in 1878 and was reintroduced
into every congressional session until 1920, when it was ratified (V. Klein, 1984).
It states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or
abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This marked the
culmination of a 70-year struggle. Like all women’s issues, it sparked tremendous
controversy and met with extreme resistance. Once the amendment was passed,
women’s rights organizations, which had fought for the right to vote for so long,
lost momentum and for the most part remained dormant for the next 40 years.


Basic rights for the indigenous populations of this land were nonexistent for hun-
dreds of years. Recognition of citizenship for the people who had long inhabited
this country was slow to arrive. The issue of voting rights for Native Americans
emerged as other suffrage movements developed and voting rights for freed
African-American male slaves were established after the Civil War. To officially
control the already established practice of exclusion, Congress passed the Naturali-
zation Act of 1870, which allowed naturalization only for “white persons and per-
sons of African descent” (Axinn & Stern, 2008, p. 89). Naturalization is the act of
extending citizenship to those who are foreign-born. In the late 1800s, naturaliza-
tion became an issue because of the growing number of Chinese immigrants who
were brought here to work on the railroads. Ironically, Native Americans, who
had been born in this country, were considered aliens and therefore were affected
by this legislation. Native Americans were denied the right to vote. It was not until
after World War I that the right to vote was extended to them. Those who fought
in the war were granted the right of citizenship in recognition of their service, and
in 1924 all indigenous people became citizens (Day, 2006). However, Native Amer-
icans were still officially considered wards of the government, a status that limited
the full exercise of their civil rights.


The major struggle for voting rights for Latino populations centered on the border
struggles between Mexico and the United States. For some Latino groups in other
parts of the country, legal recognition fell under categories for whites. However, in
the Border States, the confrontation rested on racial determinations. Were Mexican
Americans whites, or a minority group of color? The conflict officially dates back
to the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War. At
that time, the United States acquired the present-day states of California, Arizona,
New Mexico, and Texas and parts of Colorado, Nevada, and Utah (Massey,
Durand, & Malone, 2003).
100 Chapter 5

A small number of Mexicans entered the United States under the treaty.
Most Mexican Americans trace their roots to people who migrated after 1848. For
many years, the border was fluid because there was little regulation and populations
in the areas were sparse. When the U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924, the
border between the two countries gained official attention (Massey, Durand, &
Malone, 2003).
Although the 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo incorporated Mexicans as citizens, they
were routinely excluded from the privileges of citizenship, including the right to
vote. The vast majority of people of Mexican descent were considered nonwhite,
and their racial status was typically determined locally and therefore differed from
state to state (Foner & Fredrickson, 2004). The status of nonwhite persons, al-
though not exactly the same as African Americans, severely limited the rights af-
forded to Mexican Americans. One of the ways that Mexican Americans were
legally excluded was to cite their Indian ancestry and categorize them under the
Naturalization Act as aliens like Native Americans. When that designation was
lifted, the legal grounds for preventing Mexican Americans from voting weakened.
However, because local rules were often ignored by federal authorities, recognition
of civil rights for Mexican Americans continued to be inconsistent.


Our nation unfortunately has a long history of hatred and exclusion of people
based on their identities, such as race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation,
and even age. Although discrimination and oppression are ugly aspects of our na-
tional legacy, there is also a strong history of government intervention and public
policies that have lessened their impact. In fact, the history of civil rights and social
justice expressed in social welfare policies presents compelling proof of the power
of these policies to improve society and the lives of those most in need.


The Civil War was the first time that the federal government intervened to protect
people from discrimination based on race. Although the Civil War may have
helped to officially end slavery, it did not accomplish much in the way of protect-
ing African-American people from discrimination, harassment, and exclusion based
on the color of their skin.
After the Civil War and until the 1960s, race relations were tainted by a sense
of racial superiority on the parts of whites (Polenberg, 1980). Discrimination and
oppression on the basis of race were present in both the social and the economic
spheres. In the South, discrimination through segregation in all facets of life served
to keep African Americans and whites separate. Jim Crow laws, which were state
rules and regulations that enforced segregation, dominated in Southern states.
“Jim Crow” was a minstrel show character who portrayed blacks as childlike, irre-
sponsible, and lazy; this was the image held by Southern whites. The oppression of
former slaves was perpetuated through many restrictions, including laws that
barred African Americans from many public facilities used by whites, prohibited
African Americans from sitting in the front seats of buses, and forced African
Social Justice and Civil Rights 101

Americans to use restricted entrances to buildings. Public law was used to deny
African Americans the privileges that whites enjoyed. The Jim Crow system held,
and federal intervention and protection from discrimination did not occur until
almost 100 years after the Civil War.
In the North, racial discrimination was less overt. African Americans could
register to vote, and public facilities were not segregated. There were two areas in
which racial discrimination played a significant role, however: housing and em-
ployment (Polenberg, 1980). In northern cities with sizable populations of African
Americans, neighborhoods were segregated by race and few areas of employment
were open to African Americans. Decades after the Civil War, the living conditions
of African Americans in the United States were significantly lower than those of
white Americans. Even the progressive reforms of the New Deal ignored issues of
racial inequality. During the 1940s, groups considered racially different “worked
at the hardest jobs, earned the least money, lived in the most wretched homes, and
died most frequently of preventable diseases” (Polenberg, 1980, p. 30).
Following World War II, after African Americans had actively participated in
defending this country and worked at home in defense plants, awareness of the
need for civil rights protections grew. Powerful black leaders such as the Reverend
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy began their educa-
tional training during the postwar years at seminaries and took advantage of the
few opportunities to study in the North for their advanced degrees. The life and
work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomizes the gradual and painful shift in
race relations in this country. Taylor Branch (1988), in his book Parting the
Waters, thoroughly documents the civil rights struggle through the experiences
and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch provides a history of the civil rights
movement interwoven with events from the life of the man most notably involved in
the movement, stating that “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for
American history in the watershed postwar years” (Branch, 1988, p. xii).
Through civil disobedience and nonviolent efforts such as the Montgomery bus
boycott and the sit-ins at lunch counters, public awareness of racial segregation in
the South intensified. Public support for civil rights legislation grew as a result of
the efforts of charismatic and visionary leaders such as Dr. King, growing political
activism within the black community, increased media coverage, and backing from
church groups. What further propelled the movement was a shift in the support of
the courts. The Supreme Court, with changes in membership, began to broaden
“the constitutional rights of citizens and, at the same time, to sanction governmen-
tal efforts to remove barriers to social equality” (Polenberg, 1980, p. 177).
Through court decisions, public universities were integrated and military forces
were used to ensure the right of African-American students to attend. The mood
in the country had shifted. Propelled in part by the public’s growing sense of civil
fairness and in part by their fear of what might happen if civil rights protections
were not extended, legislators enacted public policy to protect the civil rights of all
citizens regardless of race.
In 1964, legislation drafted by the Kennedy administration and passed under
Johnson’s presidency guaranteed federal protection for the civil rights of African
Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (P.L. 88-352) prohibited racial, sexual,
or ethnic discrimination in employment (Axinn & Stern, 2008). The law required
102 Chapter 5

desegregation of public facilities and prohibited institutions that received federal

funds from discriminating in the hiring of employees. This legislation also created
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), charged with implemen-
tation and, later, enforcement of the act (Jansson, 2009).
Changes took place gradually as the new policies were enforced. Resistance
was great because the changes represented a major social shift in American culture.
Even though there are public laws on record protecting people’s civil rights, has ra-
cial discrimination been eradicated in America? Although racism and oppression
are not as blatant today as in the years preceding the civil rights movement, many
people are faced with racial discrimination. Actions such as racial profiling by law
enforcement agencies and racial slurs are still widely reported, as are more subtle
forms of racial intolerance, including poor services and lack of respect. According
to research conducted in 2001 (Morin & Cottman), nearly 4 out of 10 African
Americans reported being unfairly stopped by police, as did 1 out of 5 Hispanic re-
spondents. Only 4 percent of whites reported having experienced such action. Over
80 percent of African-American respondents and two thirds of Latinos and Asians
say they regularly experience intolerant acts (Box 5.3 provides more detail).
On the other hand, civil rights have been expanded and progress has been
made. Leon Wynter (2002) makes a compelling argument that commercialization
and American popular culture are changing the face of the American dream, and
it now includes people of color. He credits the civil rights activism of the 1960s
for creating the foundation for change, but he argues that we are moving toward
a “transracial America” through the marketplace. The presidential election of


During the last ten years, have you expe- Have you ever been physically threatened
rienced discrimination because of your or attacked because of your race or
racial or ethnic background? ethnic background?
Yes No Yes

Black 46% 53% Black 17%

Hispanic 40% 60% Hispanic 13%
Asian 39% 58% Asian 15%
White 18% 81% White 9%

Have you ever been unfairly stopped by Source: Morin & Cottman, 2001
police because of your race or ethnic Agree that the main reason many blacks
background? can’t get ahead is due to racial
Yes discrimination:
Black 37% Blacks 30%
Hispanic 20% Hispanics 24%
Asian 11% Whites 15%
White 4% Source: Pew Research Center, 2007
Social Justice and Civil Rights 103

Barack Obama demonstrates the change—a man born to a black father and a
white mother has achieved the highest elected position in the United States, that of
President. Obama’s election marks an historical moment. However, racial discrimi-
nation and oppression are still social problems in America. The experience of
race still differs greatly in this country. When asked about racial discrimination,
67 percent of African Americans reported discrimination in applying for a job and
65 percent find blacks face discrimination in housing. The perception held by
whites about African Americans’ experiences is sharply different. Only 20 percent
of white respondents perceive that blacks face discrimination in applying for jobs
and 27 percent say blacks encounter discrimination when renting or buying a
home (Pew Research Center, 2007). The differences between black and white peo-
ples’ experiences mean that policy makers must be vigilant to ensure that hard-won
civil rights gains are not lost and further progress is made.


Racial, ethnic, and identity discrimination still occurs in this country, in spite of
laws prohibiting it. Hate crime laws have been passed in recent years to both track
the occurrence of illegal discriminatory acts and create stricter punishments than
those for crimes not motivated by discrimination. Hate crimes are those motivated
by prejudice based on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Initial federal
legislation was concerned only with documentation of hate crimes. The Hate
Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 began the process of acknowledging and documenting
the existence of hate crimes. Two highly publicized cases in 1998 fueled the fight for
passage of hate crimes legislation. In Jasper, Texas, James Byrd, Jr., an African-
American man, was beaten and dragged behind a truck by three white supremacists,
until he died. That same year, a young gay college student, Matthew Shepard, was
beaten and tied to a fence and left to die. His assailants testified that they were out-
raged because he was gay. Although these were not the first such acts in American
history, they occurred at a time, the late 1990s, when social movements had come
together with crime victim advocacy, and publicity about the cases mobilized legisla-
tors to respond (Jenness & Gratett, 2001). The impact of these horrible crimes im-
pelled Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 1998. The act expanded
federal responsibility and provided funding for programs to reduce hate crimes.
From 1991 to 2006, the incidence of reported hate crimes grew from 4,558 to
7,722 (although that was a decrease from a high of 9,730 incidents reported in
2002, the number has held steady since then). Half of the 2006 reports were based
on race, 19 percent were based on religion, and about 16 percent were based on
sexual orientation (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2007). The public sense of
progress deterring hate crimes was jolted with an incident in Jena, Louisiana, that
began in 2006. Several African-American students at the local high school asked
their principal for permission to sit under a tree where typically white students
gathered. The principal told them “sit wherever you want” (Tatum, 2007, p. 26).
The next day, three nooses (the historical symbol of lynching) were found hanging
from the tree. The message sent by those nooses to the African-American students
was hostile and threatening, reminding them that they should “know their place.”
The incident escalated into racially motivated fights and was exacerbated by severe
104 Chapter 5

charges filed against the African-American students, and lesser charges filed against
the white students. News of these events spread through the Internet and media, and
in 2007, 20,000 protestors from around the country marched on the town of Jena
demanding equal justice. The publicity and outrage over the event drew vivid atten-
tion to the continued incidence of hate crimes and racial tensions. It highlighted the
need for further social policy aimed at diminishing hate crimes and discrimination.

One effect of the civil rights movement was the development of policies supporting
affirmative action. Affirmative action involves efforts to correct historical imbal-
ances in opportunities based on race and sex. These policies have drawn a tremen-
dous amount of public attention and serious reconsideration.
The provisions of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in hiring based
on race, gender, national origin, or religion, and also stated that hiring should not
involve preferential treatment to equalize prior existing imbalances. As a public
policy, affirmative action grew out of federal regulations, presidential executive or-
ders, and the courts, not directly out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over the next
15 years, affirmative action primarily evolved out of federal regulations attached to
federal contracts.
Affirmative action regulations called for efforts to equalize racial and gender
imbalances through hiring practices. For example, in 1968, the Labor Department
required affirmative action plans as a condition of receiving a federal contract.
The Supreme Court indirectly supported this practice in 1971 by prohibiting labor
practices that maintained the status quo of racial imbalances. By 1972, federal
regulations required colleges and universities to institute affirmative action plans


Excerpts from the comments that Dennis about all the problems that were put in
Shepard made at the conclusion of the Matt’s way that he overcame. No one can
trial against the murderers of his son, understand the sense of pride and accom-
Matthew Shepard: plishment that I felt every time he reached
Yes, this was a hate crime, pure and simple, the mountaintop of another obstacle. No
with the added ingredient of robbery. My one, including myself, will ever know the
son, Matthew, paid a terrible price to open frustration and agony that others put him
the eyes of all of us who live in Wyoming, through, because he was different ... my
the United States, and the world to the un- son has become a symbol—a symbol
just and unnecessary fears, discrimination, against hate ... a symbol for encouraging
and intolerance that members of the gay respect for individuality, for appreciating
community face every day ... How do I that someone is different, for tolerance.
talk about the loss that I feel every time I miss my son but I’m proud to be able to
I think about Matt? How can I describe the say that he is my son.
empty pit in my heart and mind when I think Source: Court proceedings, November 4, 1999
Social Justice and Civil Rights 105

(Polenberg, 1980). Affirmative action plans require proof of efforts to ensure that
qualified people of color and women are part of applicant pools and that efforts
are made to improve representation in schools and employment.
Questions about the effectiveness and fairness of affirmative action policies
gained public attention during the mid-1990s. In many areas of employment, affir-
mative action policies seem to have made a difference. For example, from 1970 to
1990, the number of African-American police officers increased almost threefold,
and African-American representation in fire departments rose from 2.5 percent to
11.5 percent (Taylor, 1995). In many other areas of employment, however, gains
have been minimal.
Preferential treatment and quotas have drawn unfavorable public attention to
affirmative action. As designed, affirmative action policies are not to set quotas,
but rather are meant to require institutions:
to develop plans enabling them to go beyond business as usual and search for qualified
people in places where they did not ordinarily conduct their searches or their
business. ... The idea of affirmative action is not to force people into positions for
which they are unqualified but to encourage institutions to develop realistic criteria for
the enterprise at hand and then to find a reasonably diverse mix of people qualified to
be engaged in it. (Wilkins, 1995, p. 3)

Although this definition seems clear, the interpretation of affirmative action has
varied greatly. Federal regulations developed during the 1970s expanded the use
of affirmative action, but conflicts arose during the next decade. Many employers
argued that qualified women and minority candidates did not exist.
For example, Harvard Law School made this argument in 1990. In response to
demands that the law school practice diversity and hire an African-American
woman, the official response was that in order to do so the school would have to,
in the words of the associate dean, “lower its standards” (Williams, 1991). It seems
difficult to believe that a school such as Harvard University did not have the
resources, contacts, or know-how to find and recruit one qualified African-
American woman to teach in its law school. The assertion that there were abso-
lutely no African-American women qualified to take such a role illustrates precisely
the attitude that makes affirmative action policies necessary.
By the late 1980s, a more conservative Supreme Court ruled against the use of
affirmative action to remedy past racial imbalances and discrimination (Axinn &
Stern, 2008). In response to these restrictions, Congress passed the Civil Rights
Act of 1991. The act reaffirmed the right of employees to bring suits alleging dis-
crimination against employers (Jansson, 2009).
Public sentiment of the 1990s reflected criticism of affirmative action. States
passed laws to minimize the impact of affirmative action. For example, in 1996
the state of California passed legislation removing the requirement for affirmative
action from state government programs. Immediately following the election, affir-
mative action supporters filed suit in federal court and won a restraining order so
that the law could not take effect.
Recent legal challenges have reaffirmed parts of affirmative action but shifted its
emphasis. In 2003, two affirmative action cases involving admission standards at the
University of Michigan reached the Supreme Court (Foner & Fredrickson, 2004).
106 Chapter 5

One case involved the law school’s practice of including race as a factor in admissions,
and the second involved a bonus point system used in undergraduate admissions for
students of color. In the first case, the practice of including race was deemed accept-
able by the Supreme Court justices because the law school representatives argued con-
vincingly that considering the race of an applicant improved diversity, which enriched
the educational system. In the second case, the bonus point system was perceived as
being a quota system, which did not consider individually each admissions case. Al-
though in the end affirmative action was upheld, the purpose seems to have shifted
from correcting historical imbalances to ensuring diversity.
The fight over affirmative action and university admissions continued in Michi-
gan through a citizen-initiated proposal placed on the statewide ballot in 2006. The
proposal passed and amended the state’s constitution to end affirmative action that
gave preferential treatment in university admissions. So while the Supreme Court’s
ruling that improving diversity allowed for affirmative action efforts, the state
constitutional amendment reinforced the interpretation that using race as a stan-
dard to give admission precedence was not allowable. The Michigan state law was
appealed through the Michigan state courts, and was upheld in 2008.
Although there have been implementation problems with affirmative action,
the principles of protecting civil rights and recognizing past imbalances due to race
and sex remain important issues today. The Supreme Court decision in 2003 has
given the policy continued support, although with some limitations. Affirmative
action’s contributions to social justice and civil rights have been vital, and will
continue to need attention by policy makers and social reformers.

As discussed earlier in the chapter, the major accomplishment in expansion of
rights for women was passage of the right to vote in 1920. Since that time, there
have been numerous other policy debates regarding the civil rights of women.

Equal Rights Amendment The most frequently mentioned struggle for women’s
rights was the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This constitu-
tional amendment was written to extend civil rights protections for women and to
prohibit discrimination based on sex.
Extending the civil rights coverage of the Constitution is not a new issue. Suf-
fragists as far back as the mid-1800s proposed an equal rights amendment. As
already discussed, efforts to include women’s rights as part of the Fourteenth
Amendment met with failure. Even securing the right to vote did not provide en-
ough public policy momentum to secure an equal rights amendment. Four decades
later, however, the reform atmosphere of the 1960s and women’s growing involve-
ment in political movements ignited another wave of interest in an equal rights
amendment. In 1972, after 49 years of attempts, Congress passed the ERA by an
overwhelming margin (E. Klein, 1984). Before an amendment to the Constitution
can become law, it must be ratified by a majority of state legislators in three-fourths
of the states. During the first year, ratification was secured in 22 states. Through
legislative extension, the ERA had a 10-year limit on securing those ratifications.
Social Justice and Civil Rights 107

The obstacle in passing the ERA was in getting state legislators in the remaining
states to agree to support the amendment.
Time and resources ran out, and negative publicity efforts prevailed. Although
supporters felt that the ERA simply represented an extension to women of the
rights that all men and racial groups already possessed, opponents felt that it
would create a radical change in the social structure of America. In the end, al-
though a majority of Americans supported the ERA, there were not enough state
legislators willing to vote for it (Freeman, 1984). In 1982, when the deadline ar-
rived, the ERA was still 3 states short of the 38 needed for ratification (E. Klein,
The defeat of the ERA may have been caused, in part, by a shift in political
sentiment. The mood of the nation in regard to civil rights and public responsibility
shifted from the 1970s to the 1980s, leading to reduced legislative support for the
ERA. The amendment was also a victim of the rise in political organization of
anti-ERA groups, mobilization of Christian fundamentalist groups, and differing
priorities among women’s groups (Mansbridge, 1990).
Animosity toward the ERA and women’s rights groups continued. In his cam-
paign for the election of a Republican president in 1992, Pat Robertson, a leader of
the Christian Coalition, warned that the ERA was part of a “feminist agenda” that
represented “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to
leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism,
and become lesbians” (Wicker, 1992, p. E3). Although the defeat of the ERA took
a tremendous toll on the women’s movement, numerous women’s groups gained
valuable political experience that helped them to advocate for public policies pro-
moting the civil rights of women.

Equality in Education: Title IX Enactment of the right to vote and protection

from discrimination in employment granted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were
significant gains for women. Nevertheless, the American political system has pro-
vided limited legislative support for the enactment of policies designed to ensure
equality based on gender. Although the two concepts are related, there is a differ-
ence between nondiscrimination and equality. People can be protected from dis-
crimination but still lack equality. For example, if a school system guarantees
nondiscrimination, it can guarantee schools for all children by creating separate
schools for boys and girls. The schools may not be similar or equivalent. On the
other hand, equality requires that those schools provide equivalent services and
resources. Thus, equal rights is a broader concept than protection from
A significant piece of legislation that did support gender equity was Title IX of
the Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1972. The legislation
stated that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participa-
tion in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educa-
tional program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

The implementation and enforcement of Title IX has been fraught with pro-
blems since passage. The greatest resistance to implementation of the policy has
108 Chapter 5

centered on the provisions related to academic institutions and athletics. Those

...which sought equalization of sport opportunity and rewards ... engendered the most
extreme, organized, and concerted lobbying pro and con, generated the most impas-
sioned pleas, and garnered the most extraordinary claims about the benefits or
pending disasters that will befall society if the legislative mandates are implemented.
(Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983, p. 171)

Interpretation of the legislation meant that elementary and secondary schools

and universities that had traditionally committed the vast majority of their resources
to sports programs for male students would now be required to equally support pro-
grams for female students. Supporters fought for even greater commitment, and de-
tractors complained that such equality would be impossible to achieve and that
attempts to achieve it would ultimately dilute the athletic accomplishments and repu-
tations already made by institutions.
Title IX has had a significant impact on the lives of girls and women. Between
1972 and 2002, the number of high school girls who participated in athletics in-
creased from just under 300,000 to 2.78 million (National Women’s Law Center,
2002). In 1984, however, the scope of the legislation was significantly narrowed
through the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Grove City College (Grove City Col-
lege v. Bell). The court decision stated that Title IX covers only specific programs
in institutions of education. This meant that if a specific program did not directly
receive federal funds, it was not covered by Title IX protections (Terpstra, 1984).
Institutions were able to demonstrate that not all programs, such as athletics,
benefited directly from federal funds. Therefore, these programs were not under
Title IX. This court decision had ramifications for other civil rights laws as well.
In 1988, the tide turned. Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto and
passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act. The act restored the original intent of
Title IX and protected other civil rights laws from dilution (Congressional Quar-
terly, 1988). The 1988 legislation defined “program” or “activity” to include an
entire institution that received federal funds and thus brought back the original in-
tent of Title IX. The rocky history of Title IX demonstrates the difficulty in protect-
ing and expanding rights that promote gender equality. It also demonstrates the
difficulty of protecting the positive impact of such civil rights legislation. For exam-
ple, the 1996 Summer Olympics showcased numerous American women who were
of the first generation to grow up under Title IX. For these women, equal rights to
compete athletically seem normal (Kuttner, 1996).
By 2000, almost 30 years after passage of Title IX, the expansion of opportu-
nities for women as a result of this legislation had been documented. A report by
the General Accounting Office concluded that since Title IX’s enactment in 1972,
women’s participation in higher education programs and on the playing field had
increased significantly (GAO, 2000). However, after 35 years, although females
were 57 percent of the students in colleges and universities, they were only 43 per-
cent of the athletes and female collegiate athletes received only 37 percent of sports
operating dollars. Furthermore, women and girls are largely absent from tradition-
ally male courses and academic positions. Although women comprise 79 percent of
public school teachers in this country, only 44 percent of the principals are female,
Social Justice and Civil Rights 109

and women represent less than one in five faculty members in science, technology,
and mathematics (National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2008).
Title IX provides an excellent example of the power of federal policy and govern-
ment enforcement in improving opportunities for girls and women in educational
institutions, but that constant attention needs to be focused on the implementation
and progress over time of public policy.

The Abortion Controversy Another issue that has sparked tremendous public
debate is abortion and who has the right to control the use of the procedure. The
controversy surrounding the right of a pregnant woman to choose whether she has
an abortion is still unresolved. The controversy is complex. For those who are
“pro-choice” (who believe a woman should be allowed to make her own decision),
access to legal abortions is a civil right that should be protected by law. For those
who are opposed to legal abortion, the issue is a moral one of preserving life by
protecting the fetus. Susan Faludi (1991), in her comprehensive analysis of the
state of women’s issues in America, challenged these differences. She argued that
the issue was not the rate of abortions, which in fact decreased during the 1980s,
nor was it “protection of the unborn.” Rather, for the antiabortion movement,
whose leaders were predominantly young men:
The real change was women’s new ability to regulate their infertility without danger or
fear—a new freedom that in turn had contributed to dramatic changes not in the abor-
tion rate but in female sexual behavior and attitudes...Women also became far more
independent in their decisions about when to have children, under what marital cir-
cumstances, and when to stop ... to many men in the antiabortion movement, the
speed with which women embraced sexual and reproductive freedom could be
frightening ... this revolution in female behavior had invaded their most intimate
domain. (pp. 403–404)

The social upheaval implied by the right of women to choose whether to have
an abortion is a major component of the conflict. For many people, legal abortion
represents a threat to the traditional family. It is believed to lead to premarital sex,
divorce, and use of contraceptives, and it touches on a deep social anxiety about
what the consequences might be if women are free to control when and if they
choose biological motherhood (Gelb & Palley, 1987). These social concerns make
the issue of legalized abortions a heated and controversial political and social wel-
fare issue.
Abortions were legal in early America. They did not become illegal until the
mid-1800s. For almost 100 years, abortions were illegal and difficult to obtain. In
1973, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade stated that a woman’s right to
privacy permitted her to make the choice of whether to have an abortion, that
states could only intervene during the second trimester to ensure the mother’s
health, and that abortions could only be prohibited after the sixth month of preg-
nancy (Biskupic, 1993).
As was true during the previous century, antiabortion movements arose in re-
sponse to the growth in women’s rights organizations. Although Congress has not
been able to overturn the legality of abortion, it has restricted it through legisla-
tion. Limits on the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions, waiting periods, and
110 Chapter 5

educational resources opposing abortion have all become law through Congressio-
nal action. The Supreme Court, which has become more conservative since Roe v.
Wade, has also put limitations on access and availability. In spite of restrictions
that vary from state to state, abortions are still legal in this country.
The anger surrounding the right to a legal abortion escalated to dangerous le-
vels. In 1990, 74 violent incidents were reported, and by 1993 that number had
jumped to 452 (National Abortion Federation, 2008). In Florida, in 1993, a mem-
ber of an antiabortion group shot and killed a clinic doctor, and in 1994 clinic
workers were killed by a protester in Boston. These escalations and murders
prompted federal action in passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act
(FACE) in 1994, which limits the extent of protesting that antiabortionists can en-
gage in at abortion clinics. Data reveal that the FACE Act was an effective piece of
federal social welfare policy. In 1996, the number of violent incidents against
clinics dropped to a low of 112, and, with the exception of a surge in anthrax
threats following the 9/11 terrorist attack, remained below the 1993 level until
2005. In the past few years, incidents of trespassing have surged, but murder, at-
tempted murder, bombing, arson, and invasion have all declined over the years fol-
lowing the FACE Act (National Abortion Federation, 2008). Since adoption in
1994, the FACE Act has served as an example of public policy changing behaviors
and deterring violence.
Although clinic violence has not grown markedly in recent years, the issue of a
woman’s right to have an abortion is far from settled. Voters have mixed feelings,
and many politicians are reluctant to deal with the issue directly. In 2003, legisla-
tors were successful in limiting the scope of Roe v. Wade. Congress passed the
“Partial Birth” Abortion Ban, the first federal ban on any abortion procedure. The
passage of this legislation revealed the complexity of the abortion issue. It involved
legal, medical, religious, and civil concerns. Box 5.5 illustrates the controversial na-
ture of the policy.
Members of Congress continue to introduce legislation that would narrow the
scope of Roe v. Wade. Opponents of abortion have been working for more than
35 years to reverse Roe v. Wade. Major women’s rights organizations have been
supporting legal abortion for more than a century. It is likely that this dispute will
continue for years to come.
The area of reproductive rights seems to be one of the most controversial of
civil rights issues. It seems to cut across race, class, and religious boundaries be-
cause it touches on values and beliefs that are integral to so many parts of our
lives. The rights of women affect our families, homes, workplaces, and every sphere
of our personal lives. Because of the highly personal nature of sex roles and gender
identities, it would seem that issues such as abortion and equal rights, which have
been highly politicized and unresolved for 150 years, will continue to be major
public policy concerns.

Violence Against Women The likelihood that a woman will be beaten, forced to
have sex, or abused over her lifetime is one in three and most often the person re-
sponsible for the abuse is a member of her own family (Population Information Pro-
gram, 1999). Research has found that 1 in 4 women suffers physical or emotional
violence by an intimate partner, and the rate is higher (36 percent) in low income
Social Justice and Civil Rights 111


Should it be legal to perform abortions? Who is right? Should the government

Are there forms of abortion that should legislate this procedure? Or should doc-
be illegal? tors and their patients make the decision?
What if the life of a woman is compro-
In 2003, Congress passed and the mised by a pregnancy? What if a woman
President signed into law legislation that is 20 weeks pregnant and medical tests
outlawed a procedure commonly referred determine that the fetus has severe birth
to as “partial birth abortion” and medically defects and minimal viability? Should
known as “D & X,” or “dilate and extrac- medical personnel have the legal protec-
tion,” procedure. The procedure is usually tion to perform this procedure, or should
performed in the fifth month of pregnancy they be sentenced to prison if they per-
or later. Opponents of the procedure ar- form this procedure?
gued that it is gruesome and not medi- Whose values and beliefs dominate this
cally necessary. Those who did not want issue? Whose values and beliefs should
to outlaw the procedure argued that this dominate this issue? Legislators? Doctors?
procedure was a medical decision and a Pregnant women? Biological fathers? Reli-
procedure that might be needed when the gious organizations? Presidents? Political
life or health of a mother is at risk. The organizations? Human rights groups?
incidence of this procedure is difficult to Can you answer this question?
ascertain. Estimates place the total an-
nual number somewhere between 3,000 partialbirthabortion/i/ispartialbirth.htm.
and 4,000 per year, but an accurate count Retrieved 2/28/2005
is impossible to determine because na-
tional records do not exist. htm. Retrieved 2/28/2005

households (Centers for Disease Control, 2008). Gender-based violence stems from
two strong traditions. The first is that women have had a subordinate role histori-
cally in our society, and the second holds that the privacy of the family is primary.
The combination of these two beliefs has contributed to the existence of intimate
violence. Socially, and until recently legally, violent acts that men have directed at
women in the privacy of the home would be punished if they were directed at an
employer or neighbor. Because of this dual standard, for generations women were
treated abusively by intimate relations without any protection of the law.
Although crimes based on gender have a long history, the incorporation of
gender crimes into hate crime legislation and civil rights was slow in coming.
Growing awareness of hate crimes coupled with recognition of the severity of do-
mestic violence helped to propel the legislative response to civil rights protection
based on gender (Jenness & Grattet, 2001). With relatively little opposition, Con-
gress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 as part of larger
crime control and law enforcement legislation. The law includes protections for
women both outside the home and within, and protects their civil rights. After ini-
tial passage, the need for even stronger legislation became apparent. In 1998, one
112 Chapter 5

out of nine murders was an intimate partner homicide, and at least one out of five
victims of violence feared reprisal and therefore did not report the victimization
to police (Rennison & Welchans, 2000). Because of the privacy of intimate
relationships, statistics are probably lower than the actual occurrences. For many
victims, fear keeps them from making reports, and the internalized belief that
what goes on between a man and a woman is private and should be separate from
the state also contributes to the silencing of victims of abuse. Therefore, advocates
pushed for even greater legal protections than those provided under the original
1994 legislation.
Since its inception, the law has grown and provided funding for numerous pro-
grams designed to ameliorate violence against women. In 2000, the law was re-
authorized and greatly expanded. Dating violence was defined and added to
programs; stalking laws were expanded; new initiatives were created; protection of
battered immigrants was added; and provisions to combat the trafficking of people
were included (P.L. 106-386). The legislation seems to have been effective in re-
sponding to the need. In 2001, there were more than half a million violent acts
committed by intimate partners against females. Although alarming, this number
was down significantly from a high of 1.1 million violent acts in 1993 (Rennison,
2003). Overall, the rate of intimate violence since the inception of the Violence
Against Women Act has declined by 49 percent. This decrease suggests that even
in arenas where there is tremendous resistance to state intervention, the protective
power of federal legislation can be very effective.


How society defines disability and how many people fit that definition are subject
to great debate. Estimates of how many people live with disabilities in this country
differ because there is variability in what it means to have a disability. According to
the U.S. Census Bureau (2007), 51 million people live with a long-lasting physical,
mental, or emotional condition that made it difficult for them to do activities.
These activities included leaving the house alone or working at a job or business.
Although the highest rate of disability affects people over 80 years of age, 12 mil-
lion 16–64 year olds have a medical condition that impacts their ability to find
and retain employment.
For people with disabilities, unemployment and economic stress are major con-
cerns. Although 82 percent of the general population is employed, only 52 percent
of working-age people with disabilities are employed, and only 26 percent of peo-
ple with severe disabilities (National Center on Workforce and Disability, 2002).
The major reasons for this exclusion are employers’ attitudes, inaccessible work-
places, and inadequate levels of education. Public policy to address inequities in
employment and access for people with disabilities was a long time in coming.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (P.L. 101-336) was the
first significant piece of legislation providing civil rights protection for people with
disabilities. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the
areas of employment, public accommodations, transportation, and public services.
The law includes the mandate that workplaces and public facilities provide “reasonable
Social Justice and Civil Rights 113

accommodation” for people with disabilities. In addition, all new buildings that
provide public services must be fully accessible (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000).
The impact of the ADA is significant. For example, reasonable accommodation
in the workplace may mean physical changes to existing facilities, sign language
interpreters, special training and written materials, or time off for treatment for a
disability. The goal of the law in terms of employment is to ensure changes to the
workplace so that people with disabilities can apply for jobs, perform job func-
tions, and have equal access to benefits available to others in the workplace (U.S.
Justice Department, 2000). Overall, the purpose of the law is to enable people
with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of social life. The provisions of
the ADA have successfully removed long-standing barriers to many places for people
with disabilities.


Civil rights protections by the federal government cover race, gender, ethnicity, reli-
gion, and ability. One group that has actively campaigned for civil rights legislation
without success is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community (LGBT).
Sexual orientation and gender expression—whether a person is defined as homo-
sexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or transgender—is far from accepted as a right to
be protected. In large part this results from disagreement over whether homosexu-
ality is a legitimate part of a person’s identity. For many people, homosexuality
cannot be accepted due to personal values. Although this belief is a personal right,
is it sufficient reason to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people federal
protection from discrimination?
For the vast majority of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in
America, discrimination is a significant part of their daily lives. Fear of revealing
one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is based on the life experiences of most
LGBT people. In a 1990 national study covering eight U.S. cities, 94 percent of
the gay men and lesbians surveyed reported having experienced some type of vic-
timization due to their sexual orientation (Berrill, 1990). Even following the imple-
mentation of hate crimes legislation, violence against LGBT people occurs regularly
(Human Rights Campaign, 2003b). For youth, it is particularly dangerous. Hostile
climates in schools exist for 75 percent of youth (GLSEN, 2006), and violence
against LGBT students is widespread (Cianciotto & Cahill, 2003). Almost two
thirds of LGBT youth experience harassment and violence in school and feel that
school personnel do not respond adequately (GLSEN, 2006).
Lack of civil rights protections means that if an employer discovers that an em-
ployee is gay, the employer can fire the worker and the employee has no legal re-
course. If a landlord refuses to rent an apartment to a gay person, or a bank
refuses to give a mortgage to buy a house, again the person is not protected. If a
young person is harassed in school, there are no civil rights protections to legally
stop the perpetrators.
Civil rights struggles by LGBT advocates date back to the 1960s and 1970s.
Early public demonstrations began with the Stonewall riot in 1968, when a group
of drag queens refused to be harassed by police officers in New York City. The
patrons argued that police regularly came into bars and arrested and abused
114 Chapter 5

patrons and demanded financial protection monies from them. The group barri-
caded themselves for days and created a small riot, which is considered the begin-
ning of the gay civil rights movement. Early civil rights efforts centered on
acceptance and an end to harassment. The AIDS epidemic brought to light the
lack of legal protections for gay couples and the need for medical and domestic
benefits. Advocates began to focus on specific issues that might afford policy
Efforts in 1993 centered on passing legislation that would prohibit the military
from asking about a person’s sexual orientation. Although this was a far cry from
full civil rights, it was regarded as an entry point from which to gain momentum
and push for full civil rights. The legislative effort failed, and advocates focused on
presidential intervention. Although President Clinton promised to change the regu-
lations as part of an Executive Order, Congress prevailed and blocked the change.
Gay rights advocates shifted their strategy and moved to push for civil
rights protections in the area of employment. In 1994, the Employment Non-
Discrimination Act was first introduced to Congress. It has been reintroduced in
every subsequent congressional session. The bill would prohibit employers, employ-
ment agencies, and labor unions from using an individual’s sexual orientation as
the basis for employment decisions, including hiring, firing, promotion, or compen-
sation and it would also protect people from discrimination based on sexual orien-
tation (Human Rights Campaign, 2003a). In 2007, the bill passed the House of
Representatives. This vote was the first time that either chamber of Congress had
passed any kind of employment protection legislation related to sexual orientation.
With a Republican majority in Congress after the 1994 election, passage of gay
civil rights in any form was unlikely. In fact, Congress moved to block LGBT
rights. As a response to possible state legislation that might legalize gay marriages
in Hawaii, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA).
This law does not actually ban gay marriages; rather it permits states to not recognize
as legal such action by another state (Schmitt, 1996). Since then gay marriage has
become the focus of both advocates and opponents of LGBT civil rights protections.
In an effort to understand the impact of DOMA, the General Accounting Of-
fice conducted a study to identify those federal laws in which benefits, rights, and
privileges are only available to those who are legally married. The GAO found
1,049 federal laws in which marital status is a factor (GAO, 1997). This finding
documented the extent of exclusion that not being allowed to marry presented to
the LGBT community. It helped fuel the ongoing fight for civil rights, focusing on
marriage as the key issue.
Legal recognition of same-sex relationships has been argued at local, state, and
federal levels. With DOMA, the federal government has taken a stand. Because the
federal government does not regulate marriage, states do, this was as far as Con-
gress could go without amending the U.S. Constitution to cover marriage. There-
fore, advocacy efforts have focused on state levels. For example, the state of
Vermont legally recognized “civil unions” in 2000, and in 2004 the Massachusetts
Supreme Court ruled that the state must legally permit same-sex marriage. In
California the legalization of gay marriages was fought through executive actions,
ballot initiatives, and numerous court cases. In 2008, the California Supreme Court
ruled that it was unconstitutional (in regard to the state of California constitution)
Social Justice and Civil Rights 115

to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying (National Center for Lesbian Rights,
2008). The decision could not be appealed to the Supreme Court because the
California Supreme Court has the final say on the California State Constitution.
Following this ruling, organizers opposed to legalizing gay marriage placed an initia-
tive on the November 2008 ballot that would overrule the California Supreme Court
Decision. It passed, amending the state constitution to identify a marriage as only be-
tween a man and a woman. The State of California still legally recognizes domestic
partner relationships, which provide some rights typically accompanied by marriage,
but does not allow gay marriage. The publicity and cost of this issue has dominated
many state elections. Gay marriage has been actively debated in the policy arena and
will likely be revisited at the federal level in upcoming congressional sessions.
Although some states and local governments have passed policies that outlaw
discrimination based on sexual orientation, federal protection of LGBT civil rights
is still lacking. In addition, 433 of the Fortune 500 corporations have nondiscrimi-
nation policies that include sexual orientation and over half provide domestic part-
ner benefits (Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 2008). Hundreds of city and
county governments have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orienta-
tion. Advocates for gay rights have included in their fight the protection of gender
expression, which covers the transgender community. Many nondiscrimination pol-
icies have been amended to include this coverage. State and private actions repre-
sent progress toward ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and
gender expression, but there is still more to be done to ensure equality.


Recognition of the rights of Native Americans has been slow to occur in this coun-
try. The earliest European settlers were insensitive at best, and hostile at worst, to
the rights and needs of the peoples who were already living in North America.
The history of protected rights for Native Americans is replete with promises never
kept and treaties broken. It is a history that spans more than 500 years.
Traditionally, the Native American populations lived under different cultural
rules and had very different ways of life compared with the white settlers. These
differences were deemed inferior by white European settlers. Race played a signifi-
cant role in this viewpoint, because the superiority of white culture was already as-
sumed based on relationships with other populations, particularly African slaves.
The key to understanding the poor treatment of Native Americans by whites is
knowledge of the cultural differences.
Native American tribes lived communally and regarded the land as belonging
to all, people and animals alike. The idea of private ownership of land was foreign.
White settlers, ignoring or misunderstanding these beliefs, assumed the superiority
of their own system of land ownership and disdained the communality of tribal
life. These differences, coupled with the driving colonial forces demanding that
early settlers stake out land on behalf of their home country, created irreconcilable
differences between whites and indigenous people. The colonists had come to
America to stay, and they “had little use for Indians. The Indians were ‘savages’
(being hunters) and ‘devil-worshippers’ (not being Christians); they were nuisances
who blocked the growth of this new English-speaking colonial world” (Nabakov,
116 Chapter 5

1992, p. 20). Ethnocentric and racist attitudes dominated relations between settlers
and Native Americans, and the consequences of these feelings remain today.
Prior to the widespread development of farms and ranches in the West, large-
scale public policies concerning Native Americans did not exist. Early settlers drove
tribes westward, and local treaties were used to contain tribes. Most public policies
were handled through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which dates back to 1824. The
bureau was, and still is, under the Department of the Interior. It was created to
provide a link between the federal government and American Indian tribes. The
early role of the bureau was to assist in containment and control of tribes.
Accelerated westward expansion made it necessary for white settlers to gain
lands occupied by Native Americans. These lands had already been promised to
tribes in exchange for lands in the East. During the 1870s, an organized movement
arose to contain American Indian tribes and control tribal ownership of land. In
1886, the Supreme Court ruled that American Indian tribes were “wards of the
nation” dependent upon the United States (Nabakov, 1992). This clearly denied
Native Americans sovereign rights and citizenship. In 1887, Congress enacted the
Dawes Act, which limited to 160 acres the amount of land each head of a family
could receive and pushed Native Americans to live on smaller and smaller plots of
land (Jansson, 2009). These two pieces of public policy effectively contained and
controlled all aspects of American Indian life.
Civil rights protection for Native Americans was largely ignored by public pol-
icy makers. In 1924, citizenship was granted to American Indians who had per-
formed military service in World War I. In periods of social reform, such as the
progressive era and the New Deal era, little was achieved in the way of guarantee-
ing rights for Native Americans. The Dawes Act had legalized ways for whites to
acquire Indian land, and from 1887 to 1934, 90 million acres out of the original
140 million were transferred to whites (Day, 2006).
Although Native Americans fought in World War II, they still could not vote
in many states. Their rights to own property were curtailed, and the Bureau of In-
dian Affairs handled all their economic, social, and educational affairs. Sovereignty,
the right of self-determination, blossomed with the social reforms of the 1960s. De-
monstrations including land takeovers, roadblocks, and armed defense brought to
light the anger and resentment of the majority of Native American people. The
most publicized event was the 1973 armed takeover of the town of Wounded
Knee, South Dakota, by the American Indian Movement (AIM) (Nabakov, 1992).
Using the media coverage and events that followed to publicize the historical treat-
ment of Native Americans, the movement was able to tap into the social reform
mood of the country.
Some gains have been made in the current status of Native American rights,
but some deficiencies need to be addressed. All Native Americans are now U.S. citi-
zens who can vote and own land; however, economic and social rights are still
lacking. Poverty statistics on Native Americans are not regularly published by the
Bureau of the Census, but local censuses done on reservations often find that most
residents’ incomes are below the poverty line. Tribal governments struggle to main-
tain sovereignty while also trying to find economic ways of integrating into the
dominant American culture.
Social Justice and Civil Rights 117

One of the most controversial issues today is gaming enterprises on Indian re-
servations. Sovereign rule allows tribal governments to open their land to gam-
bling, but many worry that the social costs will be enormous. We can argue the
merits of gambling and whether building casinos on tribal land is wise, but for
some tribes the financial gain has been significant (Gerdes, et al. 1998). And unlike
gaming under for-profit corporations as you might find in Las Vegas or Atlantic
City, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 requires revenues from gaming
to be used for tribal government operations, or to provide for the general welfare
of tribal members, or promote tribal economic development (General Accounting
Office, 1997). Indian gaming has grown, and by 2006 there were 423 gaming facil-
ities run by 228 tribes in 28 different states with total revenues of almost $26 bil-
lion, which accounted for more than 700,000 jobs and almost $12 billion in
federal, state, and local tax revenue (Meister, 2007). While gaming on tribal land
is still controversial, the economic impact has been considerable and will likely
result in expansion of the industry.


Another civil rights issue that has gained public attention is the rights of immi-
grants. Immigration has a long history in this country, with the vast majority of
Americans tracing their roots to earlier generations of immigrants. At times we
have glorified the idea of immigrants coming to this country with nothing and
prospering. At other times we have regarded immigrants as taking jobs away from
legal citizens and draining public social welfare services. However, research sug-
gests otherwise:
In contrast to public perception, immigrants do not increase unemployment by taking
jobs held by Americans, nor do they drain increasingly scarce public revenues through
[social] welfare programs. Quite the contrary—the evidence demonstrates that immi-
grants create more jobs than they take, and they contribute more in taxes than they
consume in social program benefits. (Stoesz, 1996, p. 161)

Quantifying the impact of immigration is difficult and includes weighing the costs
and benefits of numerous variables. The infusion of new groups of young workers
can benefit the economy, especially if they are producing significant labor hours for
low wages, but the long-term impact is difficult to assess (Congressional Budget
Office, 2005). There can be increases in social welfare costs, as well as increased
contributions to social programs such as social security.
Immigration, particularly undocumented or illegal, raises a number of issues re-
lated to civil rights. During the 1990s, in states with significant numbers of recent
immigrants, particularly poor immigrants, negative public attitudes have come to
the forefront. The focus of that negative attention has been on the legal status of
immigrants. Poor economic conditions in Mexico and military hostilities in Central
America during the 1980s and 1990s brought thousands of legal and illegal immi-
grants to this country. Large numbers of these immigrants settled in Border States
such as California, Arizona, and Texas. Anti-immigrant sentiments have grown in
these regions, and states have reacted through the policy arena. For example, in an
118 Chapter 5

effort to discourage immigrants from coming to this country, particularly illegal

immigrants from Mexico and Central America, California voters in 1994 passed
Proposition 187, which terminated public social services to illegal immigrants living
in California. The services terminated included schooling for children, food
assistance, and medical care. The legislation was immediately challenged through
the court system. For several years the issue was being debated through the courts,
with arguments against the legislation citing the civil rights of receiving public edu-
cation and human services. With a change in the governor of California in 1998,
the appeals process was dropped which effectively killed the measure. Proposition
187 was the beginning of numerous state attempts to limit services and resources
for undocumented immigrants.
A federal law was also passed limiting public social welfare services for legal
and illegal immigrants. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Recon-
ciliation Act of 1996 bans legal immigrants from receiving Food Stamps and Social
Security Insurance (SSI), and states have the option of banning Medicaid and Tem-
porary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) until they receive citizenship. Illegal
immigrants are completely banned from these programs.
In recent years there have been numerous state initiatives to address the grow-
ing numbers of people who come to the United States either without any legal doc-
umentation or overstay visas. In Arizona, the Legal Arizona Workers Act took
effect in 2008. This is the first state law to penalize businesses for knowingly hiring
unauthorized immigrants. More on the economic and social impact of immigration
legislation is discussed in Chapter 13.
Attention to immigration increased following the events of 9/11 and the find-
ing that some of the terrorists had remained in this country after their visas had ex-
pired. Under the new Department of Homeland Security, illegal entry into the
United States took on added significance and fell under anti-terrorism efforts.
However, immigration advocates argue there are significant differences between
the poor, young worker hoping to find better employment opportunities in Amer-
ica and a terrorist intent on destruction. America has always been a country of im-
migrants, so for those who want to make a better life for themselves, and for the
businesses that hire immigrants, immigration advocates argue for humane legisla-
tion that will find a way to allow people the economic opportunities they seek
without compromising American security.
Conflicting public attitudes toward immigrants reflect the contradictions be-
tween nativist tradition, which emphasizes “pure” Americans, and the reality that
this is a country of people whose families came here from elsewhere. In fact, Amer-
ican employers rely on imported labor. Prosecution of employers who hire millions
of undocumented people in this country will affect whole sectors of the U.S. econ-
omy. Recent cases of raids and arrests at meat-packing plants, retail stores, and
factories raise issues of people’s rights to a fair trial and defense representation,
even if they are not documented. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed
numerous cases against immigration authorities for dangerous and inhumane con-
ditions in prisons used to hold undocumented workers and the backlog in conduct-
ing the civil hearings to determine people’s status (ACLU, 2007). Congress has
discussed the need for immigration legislation yet has not been able to come to
any agreement. Therefore, issues involving immigration will continue to be debated
Social Justice and Civil Rights 119

in social welfare policy circles and will face the next Congress as a critical area
needing federal intervention.


Values and beliefs strongly influence discussions of civil rights and social justice.
The strongest belief influencing social justice and civil rights is whether we are
comfortable with providing aid to strangers. When we know someone, we under-
stand them and typically share characteristics with them. Strangers are foreign to
us, and, hence, we are less likely to understand them. Even though we live in a
country full of diversity, we do not necessarily come in contact with that diversity.
Many of us live in neighborhoods and go to work or school with people like our-
selves. So when we are asked to care about the needs of strangers, we are trying to
understand people we do not know. Lack of understanding, experience, and
knowledge are often the roots of prejudice and discrimination. The struggle for so-
cial justice hinges on fairness to all, regardless of how different they may seem
based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression,
ability, nationality, or age. In fact, our seeming diversity may be more of a social
construction than a biological fact. People are genetically 99.9 percent exactly the
same, according to the Human Genome Project, a major scientific collaborative
project to map the biological composition of human beings (Weiss, 2001). For ex-
ample, through advanced sequencing of the human genome, there is scientific evi-
dence that racial groups are not genetically discrete. In spite of scientific research,
racism rooted in the belief that there are biological racial differences resulting in su-
periority and inferiority between races is socially constructed, and therefore a very
real social problem (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). If we can use social construction
to create “differences,” then we can also use social construction to form a just soci-
ety with civil rights protections for all people.


Until the 1960s, federal involvement was minimal in securing the rights of different
population groups. State and local control dominated the political, social, and legal
arenas. Local barriers such as poll taxes could be used to override the impact of
federal efforts to provide voting rights for people. Political shifts that occurred dur-
ing the 1960s changed the structure of government.
Two significant trends emerged during the 1960s (Melnick, 1994): (1) expansion
of federal responsibilities for public well-being, and (2) increasing fragmentation of
power at the national level. During the 1960s and 1970s, federal involvement in
protection of people’s civil and economic rights expanded greatly. The federal gov-
ernment took the leading role in securing civil rights for African Americans, began
the War on Poverty, created new social welfare programs such as Medicare and
Medicaid, expanded social insurance coverage and benefits, and took leadership
roles in promoting gender equality and civil rights for people with disabilities.
At the same time that the federal role expanded, the power of federal agencies
became more fragmented. The strength of political parties lessened, interest groups
120 Chapter 5

proliferated, presidents became less powerful, and Congress became more divided.
To achieve the lofty goals of so many programs and policies aimed at opening op-
portunities for people, more and more federal agencies had to be created and
The expansion of the federal role and the fragmentation of federal control were
accompanied by an increase in federal spending for social welfare services. The in-
creased spending allowed for greater federal control. Control was developed
through the creation of federal regulations and stipulations that accompanied the
receipt and use of federal monies. One of the outgrowths of this increased control
was federal influence in the expansion of civil rights and public opportunities.
Affirmative action is an example of how federal government funding of state
and local programs can influence the course of social welfare policy and civil
rights. In order for any public or private organization to receive federal funds,
each agency must have in place a policy of nondiscrimination and make concerted
efforts at giving access to opportunities for groups who have historically been dis-
advantaged. Making efforts to open opportunities to groups who have historically
been outside is the intent of affirmative action. Because the federal government pro-
vides funds contingent upon these efforts, organizations are forced to either follow
the provisions or forfeit federal funding.
Although the expansion of federal legislation and enforcement has had the
greatest impact on advancing civil rights in America, changes in the federal role
could prove to diminish those protections. In recent years the goals of Congress
have been to remove federal government sanctions from state and private concerns,
as evidenced by DOMA. Efforts to give states more control and fewer federal re-
strictions could have the effect of lessening the protection of civil rights. If each
state is free to decide whether to protect people’s rights, we could see a return to
the conditions that originally brought the federal government into the role of en-
forcer of civil rights. Historically, left to their own, most states have not acted as
champions of civil rights. A handful of states have been proactive in guaranteeing
civil rights, making social justice variable across the nation, which one could
argue violates the premise of the Constitution. Voting rights, protection from
discrimination and racism, access to legal abortions, affirmative action, and
other personal rights were attained only through federal intervention. If more gov-
erning turns back to state rule, it may include a turning back of civil rights.
Although some states have been at the forefront of civil rights struggles, equalizing
treatment across the entire nation has only been accomplished through federal

Key Terms
civil rights human rights affirmative action Violence Against
social justice Bill of Rights Equal Rights Amend- Women Act
ment (ERA) (VAWA)
prejudice institutional racism
nondiscrimination Americans with
discrimination naturalization
Disabilities Act of
oppression hate crime laws equality
1990 (ADA)
Social Justice and Civil Rights 121

Questions for Discussion

1. How are social justice and civil rights re- 4. Do you believe we still need affirmative
lated? Can you have one without the other? action policies in the United States? Why
2. What are the differences between prejudice, or why not?
discrimination, and oppression? How does 5. What additional civil rights protections
one lead to the others? would you like to see? Why?
3. Why do you think the right to vote was so
difficult to achieve for certain groups in this

1. Find out how to register to vote in your hand experience. For example, Parting the
community. Identify all the necessary forms Waters by Taylor Branch, which discusses
and document the steps one needs to take in the civil rights movement of the 1960s;
order to register for the next election. Is it a Stonewall by Martin Duberman, which dis-
simple process? Are there barriers you can cusses the gay rights movement; and No Pity
identify that might make it difficult for some by Joseph Shapiro, which discusses the fight
people to register? How might the process be for rights for people with disabilities, are
improved? good examples. What can we learn from
2. Divide into small groups and choose a na- reading an experiential account of fighting
tional civil rights group, such as the for civil rights? What did you learn?
NAACP, NOW, the Anti-Defamation Lea- 4. Find out if you have a local office of the
gue, or the Human Rights Campaign, and Federal Immigration and Customs Enforce-
find out if they have a local chapter. Visit the ment agency (ICE). See whether you can visit
local office and ask for materials describing the office and meet with a staff person. Ask
the group’s mission and current efforts. about what the most pressing issue for the
Share and exchange the information in class. agency is in your community. What are the
If there are no local civil rights groups, find services and activities the agency performs in
information on the Internet. your community? Are these efforts different
3. Identify one social movement and find a in your region of the country compared to
book about it written by a person with first- other parts of the country? If so, how?

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Geoff Crimmins/Moscow-Pullman Daily News/AP Photo

Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 125

Developing a working knowledge of the social welfare system includes learning

how to analyze public policy. Social welfare policy analysis has often been thought
of as the domain of political scientists, economists, or government officials. Social
service professionals, however, bring a unique perspective to the critical analysis of
social welfare policies: knowledge of the personal experiences of people who are af-
fected by policies. All too often, policy decisions have been made on the basis of
economic and political considerations, whereas the experiences of those directly af-
fected by those decisions have been given little attention.
Even though social welfare policy analysis seems to belong to the domain of
other disciplines, social work practitioners are often called upon to provide insight
into programs and policies. Because social work is the delivery of social services,
other professionals and the public often assume that practitioners can explain the
purposes and rationales of social programs. For example, if a local zoning board
is trying to decide whether to allow a children’s group home to be placed in a resi-
dential neighborhood, board members might ask a social worker in the field of
children’s services to present testimony. The worker might explain the needs of to-
day’s youth and describe what is involved in establishing a group home. For work-
ers to adequately explain the needs of clients, it becomes a professional requirement
for workers to be capable of conducting some level of social welfare policy analysis
(Gilbert, Specht, & Terrell, 1993).
To successfully analyze policy, we need to follow the policy process and access
resources to help explain the background and content of those policies. This chap-
ter presents theories concerning the development and implementation of public pol-
icy, approaches to policy analysis, models that can be used to analyze a social
issue, and resources to help track the policy process. Examples of the models’ ap-
plication are also presented.


In a general sense, social welfare policy analysis is investigation and inquiry into
the causes and consequences of public policies (Dye, 2008). Public policy is the
general term for decisions, laws, and regulations put forth by governing bodies.
Typically, social welfare policy analysis is carried out to provide guidance and di-
rection for policy makers (Dobelstein, 2003) and to supply solutions for social pro-
blems (Dunn, 1994). Information gained through analysis of public policies can be
used to develop policy alternatives for the future, assess existing or previous poli-
cies, or explain public problems and social phenomena.
When workers prepare to debate public policy makers and participate in the
development and assessment of policies, they need to be versed in social welfare
policy analysis. Before discussing techniques of analysis, it is helpful to consider
how public policy is created and put into operation.


As discussed previously, values and beliefs influence the content and structure of
social welfare policy. Looking at values and beliefs does not, however, explain
how policy actually is developed and put into place. Why did “welfare reform”
126 Chapter 6

become such an important issue in 1995? Why were Medicare and prescription
drug coverage so important in 2003? Will homeland security, which became criti-
cal following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, continue to be an important public policy
concern? How do social workers get policy makers to pay attention to issues that
are important to them? A number of theories attempt to explain how social pro-
blems receive recognition and become the objects of debate and legislation. No
one theory is clearly the best. When the theories are studied together, however,
they provide a framework for analyzing the current social welfare system. They
can also help practitioners to recognize opportunities for presenting positions and
thereby to influence the policy decision-making process.


The most common assumption made by those who begin to study social welfare
policy is that public policy represents the culmination of a rational evaluation of a
social problem and all possible solutions. Closer examination shows that this is not
the case. Rational policy making requires knowledge about values in all segments
of society and about all possible alternatives, their consequences, and their costs
and benefits. Needless to say, this knowledge is often hard to come by (Dye,
2008). Although rational policy making is the ideal, it is not realistic. Public poli-
cies reflect numerous values and competing interests. It is impossible to fully assess
all values, alternatives, and consequences and adequately weigh their costs and
benefits. Furthermore, rational policy analyses “often neglect the root causes of a
problem” (Brewer & deLeon, 1983, p. 85). The more complex aspects of social
conditions and structures that give rise to values are not explored. Also, most com-
peting values cannot be weighed without some degree of bias entering into the
Newcomers to government positions are often warned that the policy-making
process does not work the way it may be described in a civics class. Policy making
is usually messy, not logical or rational. Numerous factors interfere with rational-
ity, such as competing values, interest groups with varying resources, lack of time
to weigh all possibilities, and lack of adequate information. Instead, many forces
influence the development and implementation of policies, and the influences vary
at different times in history.
As discussed in Chapter 1, social issues arise from competing values that im-
pede rationality. The legislative and social fight over abortion exemplifies how dif-
ficult rational policy making can be. When weighing the legislative options related
to abortion, one must consider religious beliefs, social mores, civil rights issues, and
personal needs of the mother, father, and fetus. All these factors complicate the
policy-making process.


In 1959, Charles Lindblom published an article in which he attempted to explain
how public policy is developed. He was responding to the prevailing theory that
public policy decisions were made in a rational way, with policy makers consider-
ing all available options and then choosing the best course of action. In his article
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 127

entitled “The Science of Muddling Through,” he introduced the theory of incre-

mentalism, which states that public policy is developed through small changes to
existing policies.
The theory of incrementalism suggests that there is never enough time to con-
sider all the information, that information on all possible choices is not readily
available, and that it is easier to make small changes to existing policies than to
create something entirely new. Often, great investments have been made in current
programs, and it is extremely difficult to dislodge systems that have been in exis-
tence for a long time.
Consider the attempts to downsize the U.S. Defense Department. Immediately
following the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s and the “end of the Cold
War,” proclamations were made about the anticipated savings from the newfound
peace (often referred to as the peace dividend). Several years passed, and only small
changes were made in the Defense Department. Attempting to close some military
bases throughout the country caused tremendous political disagreement. The return
to increased military involvement in recent years has reinforced the belief in incre-
mental change: If the nation’s military had been downsized, it might not have been
ready for the increased U.S. military involvement overseas after the 9/11 attacks.
The incremental approach allows for adaptation to occur over time.
The Social Security Act is another example of incrementalist policy making. It
took 20 years of legislative activity before the act became law in 1935. Through in-
cremental change, the program gradually expanded. Initially it was designed to
provide income for workers after retirement and coverage for family members
whose main breadwinner had died. In 1956, disability coverage was added. In
1965, health insurance was added through the Medicare program. In 1972, the
Supplemental Security Income program was developed to consolidate and expand
services for low-income seniors and low-income people with disabilities. In 1996,
the control of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was
shifted from the federal government to the state governments, and the program
was changed to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In
2003, the Medicare program was expanded to include prescription drug benefits.
In addition to these major programs, hundreds of amendments have been passed
and legislative changes made since passage of the Social Security Act 75 years ago.


Most policies in today’s social welfare system were being debated long before they
actually became law. For example, the debate concerning national health insurance
dates back more than 100 years. Also, when this country began to consider social
insurance during the Great Depression, it was already in place in most Western Eu-
ropean countries. It was not a new idea, but an idea whose time had come. Why?
What makes an idea unacceptable at one time, and acceptable at another?
Kingdon (1984) refers to the timing of a public decision as the opening of a
policy window of opportunity. Political and social events or a change in personnel
can open the way for an opportunity, and advocates stand ready with their ideas.
Policy windows do not stay open long. Events and personalities change, and public
interest in a matter can be short-lived. The likelihood of an idea becoming policy
128 Chapter 6

relies on timing and a combination of other factors. Three elements must be pres-
ent for success: a compelling public problem, a solution, and political support.
When these three elements come together, an idea has a high likelihood of becom-
ing policy.
During the 1930s, the three elements came together to culminate in the Social
Security Act. The timing was right, as the Great Depression brought significant
attention to economic hardship. The solution of social insurance had been debated
by political leaders and advocates for years, and the change in presidential
leadership from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the idea
political support both within government and from voters. Those who favored in-
clusion of medical care in the 1930s were not successful and had to wait for the
window of opportunity to open again 30 years later when in 1965 Medicare and
Medicaid were added. And those who favored prescription drug coverage as part
of the medical care coverage had to wait almost 40 more years for it to be added
in 2003. This demonstrates the short-lived nature of the policy window of


Sometimes major events or crises prompt the creation of public policy. The magni-
tude of a social event comes into play, causing a policy to be made in response.
This is a variation of the window of opportunity theory. The magnitude theory po-
sits that the more dramatic the event, the more significant the policy response. The
terrorist attack of 9/11 was the most powerful event to happen on American soil in
decades. Its magnitude resulted in major policy shifts: An entirely new federal de-
partment, Homeland Security, was created; the agency head was made a member
of the President’s Cabinet; the Patriot Act was speedily passed, changing the way
law enforcement operated; immigration laws were changed; and the federal govern-
ment took over airport security, creating another new federal agency. The waging
of war in Iraq was tied to this event as well. Policy makers continue to cite this
event when making and changing social welfare policies. Magnitude theory posits
that the greater the impact of the event, the greater the change in policy.


In Chapter 3, critical theory and critical analysis are discussed. Critical theory
focuses on power: who has it and who does not, and the political, social, and
economic outcomes of power imbalance. Applied to the analysis of policy develop-
ment, critical theory suggests that social welfare policy is debated and developed in
a context of power struggles. For example, the argument that social programs are
expanded when poor people organize for change reflects the impact that a power
imbalance may have. A tax cut that favors people with higher incomes who also
have more access to politicians suggests that a policy has been affected by the
imbalance of power or access. The relationship of power to the development of so-
cial welfare policy is demonstrated in the critical theory model described later in
this chapter.
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 129

Social construction can help explain the differences in power and the impact on
policy and therefore provides the larger paradigm in which to view critical analysis
of social policy. Schneider and Ingram (2005) explain the relationship:
... in the governance process, groups are identified and constructed as deserving and
undeserving. These constructions (whether or not they already are part of popular cul-
ture) gain legitimacy. Differences become amplified, and, perhaps institutionalized into
permanent lines of social, economic, and political cleavage (p. 3) ... policy is the dy-
namic element through which governments anchor, legitimize, or change social con-
structions (p. 5).

Critical analysis of policy requires understanding the differences in power, and how
those differences developed. Those with control have power to both create policies
and define the characteristics of groups affected by the policy. This can be done to
curtail people’s rights, such as the institution of slavery against blacks, or to
enhance people’s rights, such as the abolition of slavery and desegregation. These
policies defined group characteristics, changing over time from one position to an-
other. The shift was achieved via social construction through public policies, re-
flecting power imbalances and fights for power based on race. Using critical
theory as the basis for policy analysis can help explain the fights for social, politi-
cal, and economic rights that have been a part of the social welfare arena since the
founding of this nation.

What develops as a policy and what actually gets implemented as a program or
service will often differ. Implementation of public policy is an evolutionary process,
and policy changes when it is implemented (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1984). Early
proposals for policies are seldom actually implemented. Politicians often reach a
vague general consensus or write a complicated first draft because their many dif-
fering views must be satisfied. Those who devise the policy are not the same people
responsible for actually putting the idea into practice. The process has room for
different interpretations and values; especially in the social welfare arena. What
makes political sense when passed by Congress, a state legislature, or a local board
may not fit all communities or population groups. Therefore, it is important to un-
derstand the difference between what was planned through public policy and what
actually happened. For example, planners of public housing struggling to develop
economical and efficient ways to house low-income people did not intend that pub-
lic housing complexes would become dangerous, uninhabitable places. Historical
analysis reveals that poor planning, misjudged social events, and restricted funding
resulted in a program very different from the one original planners had envisioned.

Not all developments in public policy occur on the political policy-making level.
Michael Lipsky (1980) focuses on what happens after policy is implemented. He
describes the power that public service workers have in shaping policy. Service
workers are described by Lipsky as street-level bureaucrats. They occupy the lowest
130 Chapter 6

levels of the social welfare system but exert a tremendous amount of control over
how public policy is implemented.
Street-level bureaucrats have significant control over peoples’ lives. They make
decisions about which people get what, how quickly, and under what circum-
stances. Because of the bureaucratic nature of social service agencies, workers tend
to have quite a bit of discretion and performance is difficult to measure. As long as
certain regulations are followed, workers control interactions with clients. Policy
makers and analysts must understand that what was designed as a general public
policy may not be what is delivered. Part of the challenge for policy makers is to
keep in mind the impact of street-level workers. Planners must try to foresee the
role of those delivering the service; otherwise, implementation may alter the design
of the intended policy.
Actions affecting policy can be as simple as how quickly applications are pro-
cessed or whether phone calls are returned. For example, if workers in an employ-
ment placement and training office are understaffed and feel overburdened, they
will not have sufficient time or energy to investigate job opportunities in the com-
munity. The support and information they can offer clients will be minimal. The in-
tent of the policy, which is to place people in jobs, is compromised by the resources
available for those assigned to carry it out. This brings into question the entire im-
plementation process.


Analysis of social welfare policy must involve more than one theory. The policy
arena has diverse and numerous interests. The political scientist Aaron Wild-
avsky (1979) describes policy analysis as both an art and a craft. It requires cre-
ativity and technical skills. Many policy analysts posit models designed for
assessing public policy. Some are prescriptive and culminate in suggested policy
directions (Magill, 1986), whereas others provide explanation only (Dye, 2008;
Gil, 1992). The purpose of this book is to explain social welfare policy and give
direction for future proposals. Therefore, two models of social welfare policy
analysis are presented: the sequential model and the critical theory model. These
models are explained and illustrated with examples, and guidance for directives
is given.


Most analyses of social welfare policy have a linear flow. The sequential model is
presented here to show the common flow of policy and for purposes of explana-
tion. However, the creation and operation of social welfare policies are dynamic,
and the process is best viewed as a whole. This model has multiple layers, reflecting
the complexity of the system in which policy is formulated. Figure 6.1 outlines the
model. Applying the model requires the use of numerous questions to analyze the
evolution and application of social welfare policy. The accompanying list of ques-
tions in Table 6.1 will help the worker to structure his or her social welfare policy
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 131


Social issue/ Policy or Actual Affected
Goal of social
social problem legislation impact population
welfare programs

Values and Intended

beliefs impact


SOCIAL PROBLEM: Are the programs effective?

What are the strengths and weaknesses?
What is the problem?
Who is primarily served by the programs?
What are the definitions of the problem?
What is the extent of the problem? Who has oversight for the program?
Who defines this as a problem? ACTUAL IMPACT:
Who disagrees? What are the costs and benefits?
What are the conflicting social values and beliefs? Is the social problem changed?
What are the underlying causes or factors? If so, how?
GOAL: Are there unintended results?
What is the general goal? LEGISLATIVE INTENDED IMPACT:
Are there subgoals?
What was supposed to be the result?
Do the subgoals conflict? Who was supposed to be affected?
POLICIES, PUBLIC LAWS, OR How was the social problem supposed to be
What are the relevant public policies? PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS:
If there are no public policies, why? Did the social problem decrease?
What are the objectives of the policies? Are things better now?
Are there hidden agendas? Who is satisfied with the outcome?
Who supports the policies?
Who is dissatisfied with the outcome?
Who opposes the policies?
WELFARE PROGRAMS: Who is touched by the policy and programs?
Are there positive effects?
What social programs are implemented as a
result of the policies? Are there negative effects?


132 Chapter 6

The first component of the model is investigation of the social issue or prob-
lem. A number of questions should be posed to clarify the issue. For example,
what is the definition of the problem? Are there competing and conflicting defini-
tions, or is there general agreement? What is the extent of the problem? Who is de-
fining it as a social concern at this time, and why? Often, social conditions are
viewed as a problem by some, but not all, members of society. An issue gains ac-
ceptance as a social concern when more and more people, social groups, and policy
makers define it as a social problem. Although there may be strong agreement in
general, specific values and ideological leanings color how the issue is viewed. For
example, homelessness is recognized by many as a social problem, but people may
define the problem differently. Some may define it as a problem of poverty; others
as discomfort when they see people living on the street; and others as the lack of
adequate treatment for people with mental illness.
If enough people agree that an issue warrants social concern and attention,
then goals may begin to emerge. Goals for solving the problem may be formulated
first. These general goals, when shared by enough people, can gain momentum and
draw the attention of policy makers. At this stage, goals are further analyzed, and
subgoals may emerge. The details of subgoals may diverge greatly. Using the issue
of homelessness again, there may be general agreement that the goal is to end
homelessness. If it is viewed as a problem of poverty, subgoals may be to increase
employment or public assistance. If it is viewed as individuals living on the streets,
publicly mandating stays in shelters could be the means for achieving the goal. If it
is viewed as an issue of mental illness, community centers for treatment may be
needed. Needless to say, these are different approaches to the goal of ending
Although the entire policy process is influenced by values and beliefs, this is
particularly true at the stage of identifying and defining social problems and setting
goals. Social values and divergent views are played out in the policy-making pro-
cess. Public policy makers are charged with making policies or legislation to carry
out social goals. They are individuals with their own value and belief systems, but
at the same time they occupy public positions in which they try to carry out the
wishes of citizens and groups who elect or appoint them. Conflict in values and be-
liefs is frequently the reason why social welfare policy is difficult to develop. Social
welfare policies that are passed usually include compromises and have numerous
pieces that do not fit together. Most major public policy programs are not exactly
what any one person wants but instead have something for a lot of different peo-
ple. Gaining the consensus of so many different interests often creates vague legisla-
tion or policies that are lengthy and complicated.
Assuming that a social issue gains enough attention to warrant public concern
and development of a policy, the policy must then be implemented. Program imple-
mentation, which is first outlined broadly through public policy, is usually
developed in detail within the agencies assigned management responsibility. During
the implementation process, the programs authorized by the policies are likely to
change. The programs actually implemented often do not look like what the plan-
ners and advocates envisioned. Social programs “frequently approach the problems
they are meant to solve from an oblique angle, and provide only partial solutions.
Valid and realistic standards for judging them are critically lacking. Implemented
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 133

in an environment charged with emotional and political disagreement and subject

to a number of uncontrollable variables, the programs defy careful and systematic
evaluation” (Levitan & Wurzburg, 1979, p. 9).
There are occasions when a social welfare policy is passed but not implemen-
ted. In such cases, funding and economics may play a part. A policy plan may be
endorsed, but when it comes time to fund the effort there is little or no money allo-
cated. The creation of social welfare policy may not be matched by economic com-
mitment. Politics can also play a part. A majority vote may pass a policy, but there
may not be a strong enough consensus to actually carry through on the implemen-
tation or development of programs. Timing also plays a role. For example, a Dem-
ocratic Congress may pass legislation to be enacted, but before the process can
begin, there is a change in leadership and a new Republican majority forms. The
new majority may have different priorities and neglect to develop or implement
the policies of the previous majority. Such was the case after the 1994 election.
The Congress of 1992 had been controlled by Democrats. Programs enacted had
not received funding by the time the next Congress, controlled by Republicans,
took office in 1995. It is important to remember that passage of a public policy
does not guarantee implementation.
Comprehensive policy analysis also includes consideration of the results of im-
plementation. Once a program is implemented, some impact is made. A complete
social welfare policy analysis examines three areas of impact: the intended impact,
the actual impact, and a follow-up impact on those who have been affected by the
policy and its subsequent programs. It may seem clear at first who will be affected
by a program, but over time analysts may see that those actually affected are not
those who were intended to be affected. For example, the deinstitutionalization of
people with mental illness that occurred during the 1970s initially appeared to
concern only those released from institutions and their families. Over time, how-
ever, the impact has been much greater. Community services were not adequate
to care for persons who were deinstitutionalized, and social services were hard
pressed to fill the void. Many people with mental illness were left without services
and without a residence, further increasing the number of homeless people. Other
instances of the unintended consequences of social welfare policy can be found
throughout our social welfare system. Let us look at another example to empha-
size this point.
Analysis of the high cost of medical care suggests that the expense may be an
unintended outcome of public policy. When the federal government introduced
Medicare in 1965, it became a funder of medical services. The initial structure of
the program allowed medical providers, such as doctors and hospitals, to set the
fee for service. The government would then reimburse the providers for services
rendered. Prices set by medical providers increased dramatically during the 1970s.
Therefore, by 1983, the federal government passed legislation to regulate reim-
bursement. Some medical providers felt that the reimbursement was not enough
and began to charge higher prices, which had the unintended consequence of im-
plying that more expensive services were better services. Also, providers of new
health care procedures and technologies were frequently not covered immediately
under government reimbursements. Private individuals with financial means were
able to pay higher prices for new services, as were many private insurers. Over
134 Chapter 6

time, the public demanded access to these new and “better” services, so the govern-
ment expanded coverage and increased reimbursements. The cycle of expanding re-
imbursement and limiting reimbursement continued, and the goal of cost
containment for medical services has not been realized. One of the unintended im-
pacts of public health care policies has been an inability to halt the escalating costs
of medical services.
Ideally, if a social welfare policy is well conceived, it will be passed and imple-
mented and the actual impact will reflect the goal. If the outcomes are vastly differ-
ent than the goal, then one may conclude that the policy or its implementation, or
both, were flawed. Such assessment of social programs is the primary purpose of
policy analysis for social service practitioners.
Public expectations play a key role as well. Often new legislation is enacted
with a great deal of public attention and political fanfare. The signing of major leg-
islation is often done with media coverage. This publicity leads people to believe
that the problem is being addressed and will be “solved.” The level of public expec-
tation can lead to disappointment and even backlash when a social problem does
not improve. Public awareness and an open policy process are important. When a
social problem does not improve, however, negative perceptions of the ability of
public policy and policy makers to improve social welfare can result. One of the
challenges is not raising public expectations too high but at the same time citing
the positive impact hoped for by enactment of the new law.


When analyzing a social problem, one may find that no social policy exists to ad-
dress it. For example, as discussed before, AIDS was documented as a serious infec-
tious disease throughout the 1980s but there was no federal legislation to address
the issue until 1990. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the absence of legislation is a
form of public policy. In such instances, it is important to analyze why there has
not been any public policy. Are those most directly affected by the social issue
powerless or disenfranchised? Is there a lack of consensus about whether an issue
is worthy of social concern and public policy? Are conflicting values keeping the is-
sue from the agenda of policy makers? To understand the impact of power imbal-
ances on the development of social welfare policy, an alternative model for analysis
is offered. This model serves particularly well when one analyzes a social problem
that has not received any major public policy response.
The critical theory model is also useful in analyzing who is making policy deci-
sions, who benefits, and who does not benefit. This model considers power and
whether race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, or other character-
istics play a part in the identification of a social issue. This model questions
whether these characteristics affect the process of development and implementation.
Those with power are viewed as exercising tremendous influence over the social
constructions that permeate public policies. Therefore, in order to understand the
historical development of policy responses to social issues, it is important to under-
stand the views held by those with power and the way those views shape our
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 135

culture and our social welfare policies and programs. Figure 6.2 outlines the model.
There are also questions that help to apply the model (see Table 6.2).


Values and beliefs constantly affect the entire policy-making process. Both models
presented are affected by the values and beliefs of constituents, legislators, regula-
tors, service providers, and recipients. All of the conflicting beliefs outlined in
Chapter 1 play a role in the development and implementation of social welfare pol-
icy. For example, if one believes in individual responsibility over social responsibil-
ity, one will be more likely to oppose government-sponsored social welfare
programs. The belief in individual responsibility is often supported by beliefs in
self-sufficiency rather than social support and in individual change rather than so-
cial change.
Disagreements over policy often rest on disagreements over beliefs. Although it
would be better for policy makers to debate underlying beliefs than to fight over
the details of each policy, beliefs are personal convictions and as such are difficult
to debate. Identifying conflicting beliefs and putting aside one’s own beliefs can be
the most challenging part of social welfare policy analysis.


Although social welfare policy reflects public input and the values and beliefs of the
majority, the political process plays a crucial role. Most public policies are debated
and subsequently developed in the political arena. Several key factors come into
play when social welfare policy and politics are mixed. The political actors—the
president, elected officials, and appointed personnel—and the political environ-
ment—timing of elections, interest groups, and lobbying efforts—are important. It
is important to consider the actors as well as the social, political, and economic
context in order to fully analyze a given policy. It is also important to consider be-
lief systems. Who supports public policy intervention? Who supported it in the
past? Who opposes public policy intervention? Who did so in the past? What are


Social issue/ Power Public Policy or Actual Affected
of social
social problem imbalance reaction legislation impact population
welfare programs

Values and Intended

beliefs impact


136 Chapter 6

SOCIAL PROBLEM: Who has spoken out against the policies?

What is the problem? Does race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, ability, sexual
What are the definitions of the problem? orientation, or any other personal attribute seem sig-
nificant in these policies?
What is the extent of the problem?
Who defines this as a problem? IMPLEMENTATION OF SOCIAL
Who disagrees? WELFARE PROGRAMS:
What are the conflicting social values and beliefs? Which social programs have been implemented as a
What are the underlying causes or factors? result of the policies?
Who are the groups affected by this problem, and do Are the programs effective?
they belong to a particular race, ethnicity, gender, What are the strengths and weaknesses?
class, age, ability, sexual orientation, or other special Who is primarily served by the programs?
Who has oversight for the programs?
POWER IMBALANCE OR STRUGGLE: Is there a disproportionate involvement of any one
group based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, age,
Who loses from this social problem? ability, sexual orientation, or any other personal
Who gains from this social problem? attribute?
Who opposes it? Who supports it?
Does race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, ability, sexual ACTUAL IMPACT:
orientation, or any other personal attribute play a role What are the costs and benefits?
in this issue?
Is the social problem changed?
Who seems to have power and who does not? If so, how?
Are there unintended results?
What do people think who do not typically vote? What was supposed to be the result?
What do people with higher incomes think? Who was supposed to be affected?
What do people with lower incomes think?
How was the social problem supposed to be changed?
How is the media covering and portraying this issue?
What values and beliefs are important? PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS:
Whose values and beliefs are dominant? Did the social problem decrease?
Whose values and beliefs are minimal? Are things better now?
Who is satisfied with the outcome?
ADMINISTRATIVE RULES: Who is dissatisfied with the outcome?
What are relevant public policies?
If there are no public policies, why not?
Who is touched by the policy and programs?
What are the objectives of the policies?
Are there positive effects?
Are there hidden agendas?
Are there negative effects?
Who supports the policies?
Who opposes the policies? Are those affected disproportionately from a particular
Who has spoken out in favor of the policies?

Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 137

their values? How important is the timing of events? Is it during a campaign year?
Is it late in a congressional cycle? Is it a time of recession or a period of economic
expansion? These questions all become part of a full social welfare policy analysis.


Social welfare policies exist at all levels of government as well as within social ser-
vice settings. Social service providers are confronted by social welfare policies in
their work all the time. Not all policies originate at the federal level, but they usu-
ally flow from the macro to the micro level.
Typically, the federal government passes legislation that either mandates rules
and regulations or offers funding that has attached requirements. State govern-
ments then are either required to follow those mandates or choose to apply for
funds and agree to abide by certain rules if those funds are granted. State govern-
ments replay the federal role with local governments and communities who provide
services. The local government is most likely to actually implement the programs
and directives of federal social welfare policies. Social service agencies, workers,
and clients are those most closely involved with the application and impact of


In this section there is an example of the policy analysis model applied to a piece of
social welfare legislation (see Figure 6.3). In 1996, Congress created the Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program as part of the Personal Responsi-
bility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.L. 104-93) to replace the public
assistance program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). One of the
many legislated changes required all TANF adults to begin working within two
years. Furthermore, 50 percent of TANF recipients had to immediately become in-
volved in work-related activities for 30 hours per week. This change differed from
previous legislation by requiring all adults with children, regardless of how young
those children may be, to work or attend employment training programs. There
are numerous aspects to this policy that could be analyzed. Chapter 8 provides
more details of the TANF program. For this analysis, we will focus on a key aspect
of the TANF program, the expectation for all adults to become employed, even if
they are the single head of the household with young children. Required employ-
ment means child care is very important.
Figure 6.4 demonstrates how this social welfare policy change created a chain
of events affecting local communities, workers, and clients. The changes made in
the legislation meant that more adults with small children would be out of the
home to participate in work-related activities. It also meant that those participants
would need additional child care. However, in the years following enactment,
states did not receive sufficient federal or state money to increase the supply of
child care. Although caseloads went down at first, as the impact of the recession
of 2001 hit those on public assistance, the need for child care increased. Because
of reduced state revenues and no increase in federal support, states reduced the
138 Chapter 6


Lack of sufficient child care assistance to meet in-
The belief and perception that too many able-bodied creased need.
adults are not working to support themselves and their
Lack of adequate entry-level jobs to lift a family to
economic self-sufficiency so there is no child care need.
Values of individual responsibility and work ethic are
Belief by majority that the cost for public assistance is Self-sufficiency for public assistance recipients through
too great. employment.

GOAL: ECONOMIC SELF-SUFFICIENCY Dollar savings from decrease in public assistance

Subgoals vary from a genuine desire to help the poor
become self-sufficient to dislike of those who are poor PUBLIC EXPECTATIONS:
and not wanting to be responsible for the economic
well-being of others. Problem of welfare dependency will be solved.
Conflict between subgoals. All able-bodied adults will be employed.


TANF recipients
FAMILIES Employment training providers
State budgets
Increase the number of adults who must participate in
work-related activities. Taxpayers
Existing child care systems
Programs to prepare adult recipients for work and
decrease the number of people on the welfare rolls.



availability of child care assistance during the early 2000s (General Accounting Of-
fice, 2003). By 2004, only one of every seven eligible children actually received
child care assistance (Mezey et al., 2004). The lack of adequate funding continued.
TANF dollars for child care assistance declined by 21 percent from 2000–2006,
leaving 17 states with waiting lists for child care assistance applicants in 2007
(National Women’s Law Center, 2007).
Child care is critical to the success of welfare reform. However, funding has
not been sufficient to accompany need in the TANF program. The result is that
women on public assistance must either find unsuitable child care arrangements
while they fulfill the 30-hour requirement or risk being expelled from the program
for noncompliance. Policy makers fulfilled their political promise to ease reliance
on public assistance and promote employment, but the actual result has been quite
different. There has been a strain on state budgets and child care has been insuffi-
cient. Most of the people who left TANF for employment are not better off
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 139


“Welfare reform” through mandatory enrollment in Greater service demand and caseload. More rules and
work-related activities for 30 hours per week. regulations to consider. Requirements to sanction
recipients for noncompliance adds tension to worker-
STATE: client relationship.

Need to provide state funding for child care assistance

for TANF recipients.
Tighter requirements and possible sanctions for not
COMMUNITY: participating. Promise of greater economic opportu-
nity. However, if community cannot respond with
Increased demand for child care services. child care assistance, frustration and anger with new
requirements and what may appear to be decrease in
AGENCY: services. Ultimate possibility, sanction and removal
Greater demand for provision of support services, from TANF program.
particularly child care.
Possibility that people would be terminated from
TANF if they failed to comply with work activities


financially. Chapter 8 provides greater detail on the policy struggle to reform pub-
lic assistance programs and the outcome of changes in TANF.
The mix of public expectations for change and the reality of the policy out-
come most directly affect the recipients themselves. When policy makers and the
public perceive that they have taken action to correct a social problem and it is
not solved, attention often focuses on the recipients. The public asks why they are
still in need of income support. Because so much of our value system rests on the
individual, the public perception is that people in need must have done something
“wrong.” Individual responsibility is elevated over social responsibility and, hence,
personal failure over system failure.


A second example that uses the critical theory model demonstrates the perspective
that power imbalances can play on the development and implementation of social
welfare policy (see Figure 6.5). Much of the analysis is the same as in the prior ex-
ample. However, the critical analysis model stresses the impact of power imbal-
ances and diversity. In terms of welfare reform, there is a vivid split between those
who are making policy and those who are directly affected by the policy. Most pol-
icy makers are affluent white men and most TANF recipients are poor single
women of color who are heads of households. Analysis of welfare reform debates
revealed the disparities between those with the power to make decisions and those
for whom the policy was devised (Segal & Kilty, 2003). The membership of Con-
gress behind the development of TANF in 1996 demonstrates the power and
140 Chapter 6

SOCIAL PROBLEM: PUBLIC ASSISTANCE Almost all adult recipients are poor women heads of
DEPENDENCY household, so program is primarily targeted to these
The belief and perception that too many able-bodied
adults are not working to support themselves and their
Values of individual responsibility and work ethic Lack of sufficient child care assistance to meet in-
are key. creased need.
Lack of adequate entry-level jobs to lift a family to
Belief by majority that the cost for public assistance is
economic self-sufficiency so there is no child care need.
too great.
Employment opportunities for women tend to be low-
POWER IMBALANCE: paying jobs without health insurance or benefits.
Policy makers are all employed in powerful political
positions. People directly affected by the policy are
low-income families, primarily headed by single Self-sufficiency for public assistance recipients through
women. employment.
Policy makers are disproportionately white males, and Dollar savings from decrease in public assistance
program recipients are disproportionately women of funding.
Problem of welfare dependency will be solved.
Voters are tired of welfare problem.
All able-bodied adults will be employed.
Media highlights dependency and problems with not
Public opinion is to help people but not foster TANF recipients, predominantly poor women of color
dependency. and their children
Employment training providers
State budgets
TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE FOR NEEDY Taxpayers, most of who are employed
Existing child care systems
Increase the number of adults who must participate in
work-related activities.

Programs to prepare adult recipients for work and de-
crease the number of people on the welfare rolls.


resource differences between the policymakers and the group affected most by the
policy. Congress at the time of passage of welfare reform was 86 percent male,
with an average age of 55 years, 87 percent white, with 93 percent educated be-
yond high school and almost 30 percent of whom were millionaires. TANF
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 141

recipients were 90 percent female, with an average age of 31 years, 32 percent

white, with only 3 percent educated beyond high school and 100 percent of whom
were in poverty before receipt of TANF. Critical analysis examines the vastly dif-
ferent characteristics of those making the policy compared to those targeted by the
policy—in the case of TANF we see that older, educated, wealthy white men de-
cided what was the best public policy for young, uneducated, poor women of
color. Application of the critical model illuminates the differences that often exist
between those making decisions and those affected by decisions.
Underlying these policies are social constructions that both influence the policy
and are in turn influenced by the policy. In the case of TANF, much of what
prompted the efforts to reform welfare was the claim that welfare promoted depen-
dency and a lack of commitment to work. Single female-headed families with lots
of children were staying on welfare forever. This dependency was costing large
amounts of tax dollars. Implicit in this view was the distinction that welfare recipi-
ents were not deserving because they were not participating positively in the econ-
omy. This belief guided the changes in welfare and the replacement of AFDC with
TANF. However, data on the make-up of welfare recipients showed a different re-
ality (Office of Human Services Policy, 1998). Before the changes in 1996, AFDC
caseloads were relatively constant for 25 years. Fluctuations reflected national eco-
nomic conditions with increases during recessions and times of increased unem-
ployment and declines during times of economic growth and higher employment.
In fact, over the three years prior to enactment of welfare reform in 1996, the total
number of families receiving AFDC had been declining, falling almost 13 percent.
The effort toward economic security was focused on the employment of adult reci-
pients. What was never clearly articulated was that almost 70 percent of AFDC re-
cipients were children, on average a little less than 2 per family, and 1 out of
5 cases included no adult recipient, they were children-only cases. Family size of
cases had been dropping steadily since the 1960s, declining from an average of 4
recipients per case in 1963 to 2.8 recipients in 1996. Also, the children on AFDC
were young. During this period, the median age of children dropped as well, from
8.5 years of age to 7 years of age. Over the 20 years prior to reform, the racial dis-
tribution remained constant, with a very slight drop from 37 percent to 36 percent
white parents. Even the costs had dropped. From 1990 to 1996, real average bene-
fits per family declined by 17 percent, and real average benefits declined by 20 per-
cent. Total federal expenses for AFDC accounted for less than 1 percent of the
federal budget in 1996 (author calculations from Office of Management and Bud-
get, 2008). Twelve percent of female heads of AFDC households worked and
almost 80 percent of AFDC families were recipients for five years or less, more
than 50 percent for two years or less.
The data provide an interesting picture of welfare prior to the political outcry
for welfare reform. Most welfare recipients were young children living in single-
headed households with mothers who had very little education, worked some, and
overall stayed on welfare for a few years. Public expenses and caseloads for AFDC
had been declining. Yet the public image was very different. Instead, the perception
was of single women with lots of children spending decades on the public dole,
costing more and more public dollars. The difference between the actual data and
the public image was in part due to social construction and the influence of those
142 Chapter 6

in power to entrench those perceptions through new policy, the welfare reform leg-
islation of 1996. Critical policy analysis reveals this impact.
Although much of social welfare legislation is national and passed through
Congress, the impact ultimately can be personal and local, as shown by the previ-
ous examples. This is typical of the flow of public policy. Federal government
mandates start a chain of events that ultimately affects individuals on a personal
level. Although states accept federal mandates or funds, community agencies often
provide actual services, involving social service workers and their clients. These
examples demonstrate how national decisions affect all levels of social services (see
Box 6.1).


The best way to stay informed about social welfare policy is to follow current
events and track public policy resources. This means developing skills in policy re-
search. Social welfare policy analysis is one form of policy research. Because there
is tremendous overlap, research and analysis are often regarded as the same pro-
cess. Although the terms are used interchangeably, social welfare policy analysis
can be described as more theoretical, whereas social welfare policy research is
more applied. Social welfare policy research uses analysis “to provide policy-makers
with pragmatic, action-oriented recommendations for alleviating the problem”
(Majchrzak, 1984, p. 13). It is a catchall term for the gathering and processing of
information that influences the making of public policy (Haas & Springer, 1998).
Policy research informs policy analysis. Good policy analysis demands up-to-date
and accurate information. Therefore, it is valuable to discuss how to conduct policy
research and some of the best resources that are available.


Can we really analyze public policy? related concerns, the department also took on the
function of dealing with domestic disasters; the
Public policies that are meant to respond to social
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
needs are, because of the nature of human con-
became part of the department. FEMA was caught
cerns, constantly shifting and subject to varying va-
unprepared for the devastating flooding caused by
lues and beliefs. Can we really analyze all the
the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in
variables related to public policy? Consider analyz-
ing the newest presidential cabinet–level agency,
Can policy analysts adequately assess a public
the Department of Homeland Security. Born out of
policy that is as far-reaching as the creation and
the events of 9/11, the department’s main function
implementation of the Department of Homeland Se-
is to respond to international terrorism. However,
curity, or can they only react to events after they
the agency is also responsible for immigration, a
occur? Clearly, the position of this book is that
major concern of southwestern states that border
analysis can inform policy makers. The bigger
Mexico. There was little publicity about this respon-
question is whether analyses are heeded by those
sibility before passage of the legislation creating the
with the power to make policies.
department. In addition to these different yet
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 143

The techniques for conducting social welfare policy research follow the general
process of gathering relevant reliable information to inform decision making. How-
ever, information that is most helpful for policy research can be difficult to find if
one is not familiar with policy-related sources. There are several categories under
which policy sources can be found. With the Internet, sources are easily accessed
and consequently policy research has become easier to do. There is a comprehen-
sive list of sources at the end of the chapter, many of which are referenced in the
following sections.


Policy makers are very concerned about the extent of a problem. Is there a great
enough need to direct precious spending on the problem? How many people are af-
fected? Having data that can document the need or extent of a social problem is
very important. The best national source is the Statistical Abstract of the United
States. Published annually by the U.S. Census Bureau since 1878, it is a compila-
tion of statistics from government and private sources. There are 30 sections, in-
cluding topics such as population, health, education, law enforcement, elections,
employment, social insurance, and human services. Each section includes numerous
tables of data. Each table has the source or sources listed at the bottom, often with
web site addresses so you can go to the original source and get more details.
The Statistical Abstract is an excellent place to start any policy research to view
background data. The entire book is also available online through the Census Bu-
reau web site. If you are not familiar with the book, it can be difficult to use online
as there are more than 1,300 tables with data. Most libraries have hard copies as
part of their reference materials and a copy can be easily purchased through the
Census Bureau or the Government Printing Office.
Many states have their own versions of statistical abstracts, although they are
often not kept up annually. For example, the state of California offers its statistical
abstract through the state Department of Finance. In 2008 they discontinued print-
ing hard copies and it is only available online. Most states now offer statistical in-
formation only online. A guide to state statistical abstracts can be found in the
appendix of the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
An excellent source for data on health, injuries, morbidity, and mortality is the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This federal agency tracks all the sta-
tistics related to health and epidemiology in the United States. It includes informa-
tion on best health practices and leading issues related to health in America. Each
year it publishes the National Health Report, which is in hard copy and available
online. The book is titled Health, United States, with Chartbook on Trends in the
Health of Americans. It too is large, with almost 600 pages and hundreds of tables
with data, all indexed. Much of the data from the CDC is reprinted in the Statisti-
cal Abstract, but the National Health Report provides additional information and
more detailed data related to health in the United States.
The U.S. Census Bureau provides data on states and localities based on the de-
cennial census. The Constitution mandates that a census be taken every ten years.
The data gathered on the population are used to determine voting apportionments
and for government funding, and are used by states and localities as well. The
144 Chapter 6

breakdown of data is from the national to the local levels. The data are now so
user-friendly that one can access data by Zip Code, all very quickly online. To
find local community data, go to the U.S. Census Bureau home page (www.cen- and go to American Community Survey. This section will have the Ameri-
can FactFinder and you can type in any Zip Code to get data about the community
( You can even see the data mapped onto the commu-
nity. Again, much of the general data are reprinted in the Statistical Abstract. How-
ever, there are many other collections of data organized by the Census Bureau and
identifying data by local communities can be done through the web site. With ad-
vances in technology, the information is continually growing and becoming more
accessible for use. For policy research, it is helpful to spend some time visiting the
U.S. Census Bureau web site to become familiar with the breadth and depth of data

Every government agency keeps track of information and data relevant to its do-
main. The agencies also track legislation and the policies and programs that fall un-
der their purview. If you are looking for information and data on a specific topic,
you should determine the agencies most likely to be involved in policies and pro-
grams related to your topic. For example, if you are looking at an issue related to
health care, you might want to visit the web site of the federal Department of
Health and Human Services. From there you can be more specific as there are nu-
merous divisions that might fit for your research topic. Box 6.2 provides a list of
the major agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Information on social welfare programs that fall under the auspices of the
agency or division can be found through that department. For example, if you
wanted information on the TANF program, you would find it under the Adminis-
tration for Children and Families, which is responsible for the management of the
program at the federal level. You may need to do some research on the federal
agency responsible for a program so you can find the relevant information. The
Food Stamp program is a vital source of support for low-income people and there-
fore one might think it would be found with other programs related to income sup-
port. However, the Food Stamp program falls under the authority of the
Department of Agriculture and can be found under that department’s information.


Major Agencies under the Department of Health Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
and Human Services Indian Health Services (IHS)
National Institute of Health (NIH)
Administration for Children and Families (ACF)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration on Aging (AoA)
Administration (SAMHSA)
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 145

Therefore it is necessary to establish the authority for any social welfare programs
being studied and examine relevant information through that agency. Under each
federal department are numerous major agencies, all with their own web sites, re-
search, and data. Each agency will also track relevant legislation and social pro-
grams. Information on the policies and programs relevant to the agency can be
found through their web sites.


In addition to government agencies, there are government research centers dedi-
cated to conducting policy research to inform policy makers. Much of the informa-
tion is available to the public. The most significant agencies are the U.S.
Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Budget Office
(CBO), and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). These three agencies pro-
vide detailed information on government policies and programs. The GAO serves
the U.S. Congress and is the investigative arm of the Congress. Members of Con-
gress request information or investigation on policies, programs, or procedures
that fall under the domain of the government. Every month the GAO publishes
the reports and testimonies that are available for review. Hundreds of reports are
prepared every year and cover all the domains of the federal government. You can
subscribe to the monthly listing and receive an email alert and summaries of all the
reports that are available (
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) also serves the U.S. Congress. It is re-
sponsible for providing objective and nonpartisan analyses of economic and bud-
getary issues to help legislators make policy decisions on the multitude of
programs covered by the federal budget. This information is used by CBO to pro-
vide the information and estimates required for the Congressional budget process.
The public has access to CBO information including economic forecasts, productiv-
ity data, budget projections, and policy analyses related to federal spending. It has
special collections on a wide variety of topics including Social Security, Medicare,
immigration, climate change, health, natural disasters—all topics are analyzed
from a budgetary perspective.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) serves Congress as its policy research
service. It was established in 1914 as a separate department within the Library of
Congress. It was charged with supporting the legislative needs of Congress. Over
the years it has expanded and today it is a comprehensive research agency that pro-
vides confidential, objective, and nonpartisan information and analyses on a wide
range of public policy issues. CRS reports are not publicly disseminated and are sup-
posed to be developed for the use of members of Congress in a confidential format.
The purpose of this format is to allow members of Congress open access to informa-
tion and a way to process policy alternatives without bringing in politics. However,
with the Internet and the access of CRS materials through many of the users, the re-
ports can be found online and even through university library systems. Those who
have organized CRS materials into available formats argue that public funds finance
the agency and as such it should be available to the public. CRS’s mandate of confi-
dentiality to serve Congress has been interpreted as the reason for not allowing
public dissemination of the reports. For policy analysts, CRS reports can be the most
146 Chapter 6

in-depth and detailed information on pressing issues of legislative concern. CRS re-
ports can be requested through members of Congress, and it is legal for them to dis-
tribute reports to their constituents upon request.
The Executive branch also has agencies to conduct research. The Office of Man-
agement and Budget (OMB) provides data on economic and budgetary issues, simi-
lar to the CBO. However, as it serves the office of the president, it tends to be
partisan. What is valuable to policy researchers are the reams of data on actual bud-
getary expenses and reported economic conditions. Each year OMB is responsible
for producing the Annual Budget of the United States that the president presents to
Congress. This volume contains data on all the expenditures and receipts of the fed-
eral government. Also available is a historical compendium that provides decades of
data. Both documents as well as other budget information can be accessed at www. The president also releases the Economic Report of the President
annually, and this book includes numerous tables with economic data.

Legislative tracking can be helpful in understanding the history of a particular pol-
icy. It is also a difficult process as one needs to understand the legislative process
and terminology specific to public lawmaking. Details on the legislative process are
found in the last chapter of this book. More details on legislative tracking can be
found in those sections. For now be aware that there are two major sources for leg-
islative tracking that are available online. THOMAS ( is the offi-
cial web site of the federal government for legislative information and it is run by
the Library of Congress. It is free and completely open to the public. This site allows
one to search for public laws, and the bills introduced to Congress. It provides back-
ground information and legislative histories of all the bills and laws introduced and
passed by both chambers of Congress. The site also provides access to the Congres-
sional Record, which is the daily digest of discussions on the floors of the House of
Representatives and the Senate. Committee reports are available and links to other
sources of information related to the legislative process can also be found.
A similar source is LexisNexis, a very comprehensive data base with legislative
information similar to THOMAS. However, LexisNexis is a private, for-profit or-
ganization and its services are only available through subscription. Most major li-
braries subscribe, so access can be obtained. For example, university libraries often
have a subscription so all faculty and students can access the LexisNexis database.
It can be a little more difficult to use, as it is geared toward the legal profession and
therefore can seem more technical and use legal terms that may not be familiar to
the average person.
States also have their own legislative sites on which it is possible to track legis-
lation and find information on pending bills and policy topics. You can find links
to all the state legislatures through hosted
by the national organization National Conference of State Legislatures. Or, you
can simply Google the state you are interested in, followed by “Legislature” and
that should take you to the home page of that state’s legislative body. The site typ-
ically will include listings of all the state-elected officials and information on the
policy process in the state.
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 147

General legislative information about federal policy-making is also available

through a number of publications of the Congressional Quarterly Press, which
publishes books, periodicals, directories, and general information on the American
government, politics, and currents events. CQ Press is a private, nonpartisan, inde-
pendent publisher that has been providing Congressional coverage since 1945.
Most of its products are for sale to the public, and some of its subscription series
are held by libraries. The CQ Weekly Report is a weekly news periodical covering
legislation and the social issues related to pending bills and enacted laws.
C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) televises the proceedings
of the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as committee hearings and
other public policy events. C-Span can be found on cable television channels so
you can directly watch the U.S. Congress in action. The web site also provides an
archive of video clips and background information on the workings of Congress.
The Supreme Court and campaign and election activities are also covered.

Nowadays almost all national groups have a web page and are accessible to the
public. Advocacy groups can be rich sources of policy-related information. The
challenge for policy analysis is to be sure the source is a credible and well-
respected group with accurate information. Organizations that have a long history
and are well known are usually respected sources for information. Of course these
organizations do take positions and therefore can be biased in their approach to a
policy issue. One way to enhance your policy research is to find organizations that
take different perspectives and access the information on an issue from the multiple
sources. That way you can analyze the issue from a number of angles and discover
the underlying values and beliefs that impact the perspectives.
The topic of immigration has become a hotly contested issue in recent years.
There are several national organizations that provide analyses and information on
the topic. Two very thorough organizations with slightly different perspectives are
the Pew Hispanic Research Center and the Center for Immigration Studies. Careful
reading of the materials demonstrates slightly different perspectives on immigra-
tion. The Pew Hispanic Research Center focuses primarily on Latino immigration
and does not take a position pro or con, whereas the Center for Immigration Stud-
ies identifies itself as pro-immigration but seeks to lower the rate of immigration
and especially close access for undocumented immigrants. It is important to re-
member that although advocacy groups can provide valuable information, these
groups often operate with a mandate that prescribes a certain position. Good pol-
icy analysis requires that you are aware of their position and can articulate the al-
ternative positions as well.


There are also valuable state and local sources for policy analysis and research.
Two national organizations that are non-partisan and highly respected are the Na-
tional Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), cited earlier as a source for state
148 Chapter 6

legislatures, and the National Association of Governors (NGA). Both organizations

track national public policies and the impact the legislation might have on states
and localities. The Unites States Conference of Mayors is a nonpartisan organiza-
tion that represents cities with populations of 30,000 or more. In 2009, that cov-
ered more than a thousand municipalities. Part of its mission is to provide
information for and about urban/suburban communities and strengthen relation-
ships between federal and city governments. They also produce reports and data
on public policy topics related to cities.
Through the Internet you can find the web sites for numerous organizations
and government agencies that will help you to conduct social welfare policy re-
search. Web sites change often, so some may not be available over time. The
sources discussed previously all have long histories and will likely be excellent
sources for decades to come. With the Internet, policy resources are abundant, and
easily accessible. A mere 15 years ago, most of these resources were available in
hard copy only and required hours and hours of in-person library research. The
best policy data sources were only accessible with intimate knowledge of govern-
ment agencies and contacting those agencies directly for copies. Today, policy anal-
ysis is accessible to anyone anywhere with an Internet connection and often
provides more information than time to use permits. Good policy analysis will re-
quire finding the most beneficial sources and dismissing the multitude of sources
that are more commentary on topics than resource data. Be mindful of this explo-
sion in accessible information.


The questions and guidelines for social welfare policy analysis as outlined in this
chapter serve as a technical framework. These are the tools of the craft. The art of
social welfare policy analysis comes in applying these techniques. Creativity comes
into play as an analyst focuses on a social issue and analyzes all the diverse compo-
nents that have an impact on a social problem. The key is to ask many questions
without losing focus on a particular social issue. Diagrams can help us to visualize
the multiple dimensions that influence the evolution of social welfare policy. Invari-
ably, policy-making is not a neat and precise process. All social welfare policies
evolve differently and with different players. Advocates of one policy may be oppo-
nents of another. Effective analysis requires staying focused on an issue and keep-
ing the issue central to the analysis.

Key Terms
social welfare policy rational policy window of opportunity street-level
analysis making magnitude bureaucrats
public policy incrementalism implementation policy research
Analyzing and Researching Social Welfare Policies 149

Questions for Discussion

1. Can you think of policy examples that have 4. Give an example of a power imbalance in
been instituted incrementally? society. How do you think this affects social
2. Identify an event that might create a window welfare policies and programs?
of opportunity for changing social welfare 5. What role does social construction play in
policy. What impact might this event have policy-making?
on social change?
3. What are the key questions to ask when an-
alyzing policy? Explain the significance of

1. Choose a social problem. Describe a rational much of an impact did personalities play in
approach to the problem. Develop incre- the development and implementation of the
mental steps to change policies that address policy?
the problem. 4. Visit your university library or local public
2. Identify a policy or rule in your school, job, library and familiarize yourself with the re-
or field practicum. Try to chart the flow of source documents available. Which of the
this policy. Where did it originate, and on sources listed in this chapter are in the li-
what or whose authority? What steps does it brary? List and describe five sources that are
follow as it is applied? Are there unintended not listed in this chapter but would be
consequences of the policy? Who is directly helpful when analyzing social welfare poli-
affected? Who is indirectly affected? Does cies and programs.
the actual impact reflect the original goal? 5. Find C-SPAN on television. Spend an hour
3. Using the same policy as in Exercise 1, watching coverage of the House of Repre-
identify the key players in the development sentatives or the Senate. What are your im-
of the policy. Are they still at the organiza- pressions? Was it easy to follow? What
tion? If they are, would the policy still be in information would be helpful to enhance
effect if they were gone? If they are no longer your understanding of the proceedings?
there, why has the policy endured? How

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analysis, 3rd ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole. Dimensions of social welfare policy, 3rd ed.
Dunn, W. N. (1994). Public policy analysis, 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Haas, P. J., & Springer, F. (1998). Applied policy
Dye, T. R. (2008). Understanding public policy, 12th research. New York: Garland Publishing.
edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Kingdon, J. W. (1984). Agendas, alternatives, and
General Accounting Office. (2003). Child care: Recent public policies. Boston: Little, Brown.
state policy changes affecting the availability of Levitan, S. A., & Wurzburg, G. (1979). Evaluating
assistance for low-income families. GAO-03-588. federal social programs: An uncertain art.
Washington, DC: Author. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
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Lindblom, C. E. (1959). The science of muddling Office of Human Services Policy. (1998). Aid to
through. Public Administration Review 19:79–88. Families with Dependent Children: The baseline.
Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy. New Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and
York: Russell Sage Foundation. Human Services.
Magill, R. S. (1986). Social policy in American society. Pressman, J. L., & Wildavsky, A. (1984).
New York: Human Sciences Press. Implementation, 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University
Majchrzak, A. (1984). Methods for policy research. of California Press.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. Schneider, A. L. & Ingram, H. M. (2005). Public
Mezey, J., Parrott, S., Greenberg, M., & Fremstad, S. policy and the social construction of deservedness.
(2004). Reversing direction of welfare reform: In Schneider, A. L. & Ingram, H. M. (eds.),
President’s budget cuts child care for more than Deserving and entitled: Social constructions and
300,000 children. Washington, DC: Center on public policy (pp. 1–28). Albany, NY: State
Budget and Policy Priorities and Center for Law University of New York Press.
and Social Policy. Segal, E. A., & Kilty, K. M. (2003). Political promises
National Women’s Law Center. (2007, September). for welfare reform. Journal of Poverty: Innovations
Issue Brief - State child care assistance policies on Social, Political, and Economic Inequalities
2007: Some steps forward, more progress needed. 7(1 and 2):51–68.
Washington, DC: Author. U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). Statistical abstract of the
Office of Management and Budget. (2008). Historical United States: 2008, 127th edition. Washington,
tables: Budget of the United States Government. DC: Author.
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Wildavsky, A. (1979). The art and craft of policy
Office. analysis. Boston: Little Brown.


Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
152 Chapter 7

Very few social programs in the United States fall under the typology of an institu-
tional social welfare structure. As described in the first chapter, institutional social
welfare programs are built into the social and economic structure of our society
and are a normal and expected part of our social system. All persons, regardless
of their incomes or special needs, are considered part of the program. It is based
on the value of collective responsibility for social well-being. The social insurance
program in the United States is the closest example we have of an institutional so-
cial welfare program.


The concept of social insurance was introduced in Chapter 2. Social insurance is a
collectively funded program for workers and their dependents that provides eco-
nomic resources at the conclusion of employment. The key national social insur-
ance program in the United States is Social Security. The Social Security program
is social because it covers almost every employed person in this country, and it is
insurance because all payments into the program are pooled to cover all citizens
collectively. It is the purest institutional social welfare program in the nation. Re-
gardless of one’s needs, if one pays into the system, one is eligible to receive bene-
fits. A millionaire can collect Social Security benefits just as an impoverished person
can. The institutional and universal characteristics of the program make it the most
accepted and protected social welfare program in our country. The evolution of
Social Security represented a political transformation in social welfare policy in the
United States.


Today the most well-known social welfare program is the Old-Age, Survivors, and
Disability Insurance Program (OASDI), commonly referred to as Social Security. Its
creation and enactment into law were a direct result of the social and economic up-
heaval of the Great Depression. In the 1920s, economic instability and unemploy-
ment were not social welfare concerns. The “Roaring Twenties” were for some
people years of economic prosperity and extravagant living (see Chapter 2). Al-
though there were impoverished people, they tended to live in areas secluded from
the view of policy makers and the mainstream public. The poverty of the years fol-
lowing World War I was concentrated among rural populations and immigrants,
groups that were often ignored by politicians. Those who benefited economically
from the business activities of the 1920s could easily be oblivious to the needs of
the poor. Many of the people benefiting from the economic progress of the time
were living beyond their means, buying on credit, and saving little or nothing.
Stock market speculation and illegal business deals were common. The shrewd
business person who could earn sums of money in a short time was idealized.
Therefore, the attitude of the time was that anyone could succeed economically.
The stock market crash of October 24, 1929, changed political, social, and
economic beliefs. It demonstrated that the market system was not perfect. The
economic depression that followed revealed the uneven prosperity of the 1920s.
The result of years of extended credit, little savings, and market speculation was
Social Insurance 153

economic upheaval on a scale never before experienced in this country. The exist-
ing network of social and charitable supports was insufficient to provide for the
need created by the Great Depression.
The magnitude of the Great Depression was a catalyst for social change. It
gave impetus to the development of the New Deal. The New Deal was a set of leg-
islative reforms put forth by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that set a new
legislative tone for the country. These new programs were designed to employ peo-
ple and return the economy to working order (see Chapter 2). The first social wel-
fare efforts following the start of the Great Depression were loans and grants to
states to pay for direct relief and create work programs. However, state efforts
were not enough. Prior to 1935, some states had been moving toward worker pro-
tection; however, there was no national system to protect workers from the eco-
nomic consequences of job loss or old age. In 1934, President Roosevelt created
the Committee on Economic Security, chaired by Secretary of Labor Frances Per-
kins, and charged it with the task of studying the problem of economic insecurity
and making legislative recommendations on it. Drawing on state experiments and
European models, the committee developed a plan that was endorsed by the Presi-
dent and sent to Congress. After months of debate, the Social Security Act was
passed. It was signed into law on August 14, 1935 (Social Security Administration,
The political and social dimensions of the New Deal transformed the way that
social well-being was addressed in the United States. The programs that were part
of the New Deal, particularly the Social Security system, represented a new govern-
ing philosophy that redefined 20th-century public policy and, in the words of one
of the master architects of the New Deal, Harry Hopkins, it “made America over”
(Milkis & Mileur, 2002, p. 2). The impact of the New Deal was significant for so-
cial welfare policy in America because it firmly placed the federal government at
the head of social welfare support and it contributed to the return of economic sta-
bility. Although the New Deal was significant, it did not displace capitalism. For
some, the reforms did not go far enough:
The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, news-
papers, churches and colleges. Enough help had been given to enough people to make
Roosevelt a hero to millions, but the same system that had brought depression and
crisis—the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need—
remained. (Zinn, 2003, pp. 403–404)

Although the New Deal did not radically alter the underlying economic system,
it did make significant changes and established permanent safeguards through fed-
eral legislation. The New Deal transformed America, and still affects our lives to-
day. When 48 million people receive their monthly Social Security checks, or
millions of Americans deposit money in a federally insured bank, visit one of the
thousands of public buildings such as post offices, college dormitories, public
schools, public hospitals, and museums constructed during the 1930s, collect un-
employment insurance, join a labor union without threat, or are guaranteed a min-
imum wage and set working hours for employment, they are reaping the benefits of
the New Deal. Familiar landmarks such as the Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough
Bridge in New York; the port of Brownsville, Texas; Coit Tower in San Francisco;
154 Chapter 7

and the Link from Key West to the Florida mainland were all built as part of the
employment initiatives under the New Deal (Leuchtenburg, 1963).
Social insurance was the keystone to the reforms of the New Deal. The Social
Security Act codified a more universal and institutional approach to social welfare
policy. It has permanently transformed our social welfare system. Box 7.1 outlines
the original parts of the policy and the current version of the act. The act has been
amended greatly over its 75-year history.
The focus in this chapter is on the social insurance programs of the Social Se-
curity Act. The numerous other programs that are now part of the act are covered
elsewhere in the book. When reviewing Box 7.1, keep in mind all the programs
that have grown out of the Social Security Act that are critical to social well-being
today, such as the Medicare and Medicaid health programs, the Temporary Assis-
tance for Needy Children public assistance program, and child welfare services for
adoption, foster care, and child support enforcement. These programs are discussed
later in the book.


The two components of the Social Security Act, social insurance and public assis-
tance, were seen as complementary but not equal. The overall intent was to create
a program that would respond to the immediate crisis of unemployment and loss of
savings, and also lay a firmer economic foundation so that no future economic up-
heaval would have the same impact on the populace. Public assistance was de-
signed to be temporary and take care of the immediate economic crisis. Once the
crisis had passed and people were employed again, the social insurance programs
would cover all future economic downturns and make public assistance unneces-
sary. Even President Roosevelt was cautious about the public assistance aspects of
social welfare policy:
The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief . . . I am not willing
that the vitality of our people be further sapped . . . We must preserve not only the
bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance
and courage and determination. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Annual Message
to Congress, January 3, 1935, cited in Axinn & Levin, 1975, p. 179)

The reluctance to rely on relief, or direct cash assistance, was evident in the de-
velopment of the Social Security Act. The goal of the legislation was to create a sys-
tem attached to the employment market. Over time the program would cover all
people, either as workers or as the survivors or dependents of workers. This cover-
age would displace the immediate need for cash relief as outlined in the public as-
sistance programs of the Social Security Act. For example, a poor widow who was
raising her children alone would need public assistance. However, if the Social Se-
curity program had existed, her husband would have paid into it, and the woman
and her children would be taken care of through the program’s survivor and de-
pendent coverage, making the public assistance program unnecessary. The original
public assistance components were old-age assistance, aid to dependent children
Social Insurance 155


The Social Security Act of 1935 The Social Security Act in 2009

Title I: Grants to States for Old-Age Assistance [Grants to States for Old-Age Assistance]*
Title II: Federal Old-Age Benefits Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability
Insurance Benefits
Title III: Grants to States for Unemployment Grants to States for Unemployment
Compensation Administration Compensation Administration
Title IV: Grants to States for Aid to Dependent Grants to States for Aid and Services to Needy
Children Families with Children and for Child Welfare
Title V: Grants to States for Maternal and Child Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant
Title VI: Public Health Work Temporary State Fiscal Relief
Title VII: Social Security Board Administration
Title VIII: Taxes with Respect to Employment Special Benefits for Certain World War II
(for Old-Age Insurance) Veterans
Title IX: Tax on Employers of Eight or More (for Miscellaneous Provisions Relating to
administration of unemployment compensation) Employment Security
Title X: Grants to States for Aid to the Blind [Grants to States for Aid to the Blind]
Title XI: General Provisions General Provisions, Peer Review, and
Administration Simplification
Title XII: Advances to State Unemployment Funds
Title XIII: [Repealed]
Title XIV: [Grants to States for Aid to the Permanently
and Totally Disabled]
Title XV: [Repealed]
Title XVI: [Grants to States for Aid to the Aged, Blind,
and Disabled]
Title XVII: Grants for Planning Comprehensive Action to
Combat Mental Retardation
Title XVIII: Health Insurance for the Aged and Disabled
Title XIX: Grants to States for Medical Assistance
Programs (Medicaid)
Title XX: Block Grants to States for Social Services

Title XXI: State Children’s Health Insurance Program

Titles in brackets were either repealed or amended into other titles and are therefore no longer part of the current
156 Chapter 7

and their mothers, aid to disabled children, aid to the blind, and child welfare ser-
vices, all of which were thought to be temporary:
The Bureau of Public Assistance was in charge of a despised program, which, at least in
theory, the Social Security Board intended should wither away, whereas the Bureau of Old
Age and Survivors Insurance was in charge of a preferred program that was expected to
grow until, again in theory, it virtually supplanted the first. (Derthick, 1979, p. 160)

Seventy-five years later, there is still a need for the public assistance programs of
the Social Security Act. Those public assistance programs are covered in detail in
the next chapter. Since the original Social Security Act was passed, it has been
amended to include numerous other social programs. Most of the key social wel-
fare support services of today are found under the Social Security Act. Box 7.2 lists
the current programs that fall under the two parts of the Social Security Act.
The original social insurance provisions were a federal system of old-age benefits
for retired workers and a federal-state partnership for unemployment insurance.
The system of old-age benefits was called the Old-Age Insurance program. It pro-
vided benefits for retired workers who had paid taxes into the system while em-
ployed in industry and commerce. The program was to begin collecting taxes in
1937 and pay out benefits to retired workers starting in 1942. Before full enact-
ment of the law, it was expanded in 1939 to cover workers’ survivors and depen-
dents. Survivors’ provisions meant that if a worker died, dependent family
members would continue to receive benefits. Benefits became payable in 1940 in-
stead in 1942, as originally planned.
Disability insurance was added in 1956 to provide cash benefits for disabled
workers. Throughout the 1950s, disability coverage was expanded to include benefits
for dependents of disabled workers and for adult disabled children of deceased or re-
tired workers. Retirement, survivor, and disability coverage reflect the major provi-
sions of the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program today.


Social Insurance Programs Public Assistance Programs

Old Age Survivors Disability Insurance Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Unemployment Insurance Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind,

and Disabled

Workers Compensation Medicaid

Medicare Block grants to states

State Children’s Health Insurance Program

Child welfare services

Social Insurance 157

The second major social insurance program enacted as part of the Social
Security Act made benefits available in the event of unplanned unemployment.
Unemployment Insurance (UI) is provided through federal-state partnerships that
give benefits to regularly employed members of the labor force who become invol-
untarily unemployed. Unemployment benefits are provided as a right. Recipients
are not required to take a means test. These aspects make the program a social
insurance program. The importance of the Unemployment Insurance program for
economic security is discussed in Chapter 9.
The driving force behind the creation of the UI program was the overwhelming
unemployment of the Great Depression. With millions out of work, it became clear
that instead of dismantling the economic system, the government needed to create a
safety net for times when businesses, for their survival, had to lay off employees.
The UI program is designed to help a person who has been regularly employed
and, through no fault of his or her own, loses that employment. He or she is eligi-
ble to receive weekly benefits to supplant some of the lost wages. The Social Secu-
rity Act offers employers tax credit incentives to participate in the program and
authorizes federal grants to cover the administrative costs. The UI program is
financed through an employer tax that entitles the employer to receive a tax credit.
Under the guidance of federal standards, each state decides the amount and
duration of benefits, coverage, contribution rates, and eligibility requirements. State
regulations vary greatly, but all follow the major federal guidelines in determining
program eligibility within the state’s jurisdiction (Social Security Administration,
All taxes collected from employers are deposited in the Federal Unemployment
Trust Fund. The fund is invested as a whole, but each state has a separate account
from which to pay benefits. The states directly administer the programs. Benefits
are calculated according to the worker’s past wages within limits set by each state.
Since 1949, the program has been administered under the Department of Labor.

The original public assistance provisions were a group of grants to states for
means-tested programs for poor elderly persons, people who were blind, and
mothers and children who needed health and welfare services. The next chapter
presents the public assistance programs of the Social Security Act in detail. To un-
derstand the importance of social insurance as a social welfare approach, it is infor-
mative to highlight some of the differences between it and public assistance. As
stated previously, the public assistance provisions were considered necessary but
temporary, and were not at all favored by those charged with administering the
program. The strong belief in individual responsibility and the value of work
made the social insurance program preferable to public assistance. Public assistance
was not seen as reinforcing the American work ethic and was therefore less desir-
able. These negative beliefs were present at the inception of the program and con-
tinue today. Social insurance was built on employment and individual effort, with
a shared overall commitment. The negative beliefs surrounding public assistance
are presented in more detail in the next chapter. The contrast between the two
158 Chapter 7

approaches has made Social Security a publicly supported program and public as-
sistance a program plagued by public disfavor.


The structure of the OASDI program requires people who are young and working to
pay into the system. About 96 percent of the American workforce is covered by
OASDI (Social Security Administration, 2008). Those not covered include civilian
federal employees hired before 1984; railroad workers, who are covered by the fed-
eral railroad retirement system; and some state and local government employees,
who are covered under their employers’ retirement systems. The design of the pro-
gram is that each covered person contributes either through payroll taxes or self-
employment taxes. The law that mandates the payment for employees is the Federal
Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). The amount deducted for FICA is shown on
workers’ paychecks. Employers match the employee contribution, and self-employed
workers pay both the employee and the employer taxes. The tax applies to a set
amount of earnings, for which there is a ceiling. The upper limit increases annually
to account for inflation. Initially, the program was set to tax the first $3,000 of earn-
ings at a rate of 1 percent for the employee, matched by 1 percent by the employer
(Meyers, 1985). From 1937 to 1949, this amounted to a maximum total of $30 for
each covered employee. Over the years, the tax rate and the upper limit on earnings
have increased to accommodate the funds necessary for benefits.
The accompanying tax rate schedule, in Box 7.3, lists the percentages of in-
come paid for OASDI and Medicare in 2009. Each worker’s employer matches the
amount and pays it directly to the federal government. If a person is self-employed,
he or she is responsible for paying both portions. The amount paid in is a set per-
cent, 7.65 percent as of 2009, for OASDI and Medicare together, up to a certain
amount of the overall salary. In 2009, Social Security taxes had to be paid on all
income up to $106,800. Any income exceeding that amount was taxed only for
the Medicare portion (1.45 percent). Therefore, because of the cap, as a person’s
salary rises, a decreasing percentage of income is withheld. Some argue that this is
unfair, because people with lower incomes pay a larger percentage of their salary.
For example, in 2009 a person who earns $30,000 pays $2,295 in Social Security
and Medicare taxes, or 7.65 percent of total income. A person who earns
$150,000 pays $8,797, or 5.86 percent of overall salary, and a person who earns

BOX 7.3
2009 Tax Rate Percent* on Employee Earnings 2009 Tax Rate Percent on Self-employed Earnings

Total OASDI** Medicare Total OASDI** Medicare

7.65 6.2 1.45 15.3 12.4 2.9

Employers also contribute these amounts.
OASDI tax applies to first $106,800; there is no cap for Medicare.
Social Insurance 159

$300,000 pays $10,972, a total of 3.66 percent of overall salary. So although

the higher-salaried person paid more in tax dollars, the proportion of the tax
was less. This disparity makes the Social Security tax a regressive tax, one that is
proportionately greater for people with low incomes than for people with higher
The federal government holds the money in a special account, the Social Secu-
rity Trust Fund. Money in the trust fund can be used only for the OASDI program
in the form of monthly benefits, vocational rehabilitation services for disabled ben-
eficiaries, administrative costs, and lump-sum death payments for eligible survivors
(Social Security Administration, 2008). Therefore, money in the trust fund cannot
be used for any other government purpose. FICA revenues that exceed the outlays
for a given year are invested in interest-bearing Treasury Bonds that are assets of
the trust fund to be used when needed to cover Social Security costs.
Eligibility requirements include working for at least 40 quarters (10 years) in
covered employment and reaching the retirement age of 65 years (and by the year
2022, the retirement age of 67 years). Spouses and children of workers who have
died are eligible for survivorship benefits. There are some exceptions and variations
to these rules, and the specifics change from year to year. In order to be absolutely
certain of eligibility, each person should check with a local Social Security Adminis-
tration office. The details of the program are also available in book format from
the Social Security Administration or on the Internet (
The Social Security Administration keeps track of the contributions made by
each worker and that person’s employer. This amount is used to calculate how
much a retiree receives per month in benefits when he or she becomes eligible. The
average monthly benefit for a retired worker in 2007 was $1,082 and for a dis-
abled worker was $1,004 (Social Security Administration, 2008).
Most women who receive Social Security benefits do so as wives or survivors
of eligible workers. A wife or widow can choose to receive benefits based on her
own work history or based on the earnings of her spouse. For most women,
monthly benefits are greater if based on the earnings of their husbands. A woman
still living with her husband receives 50 percent of his entitlement. Therefore, a
married couple typically receives 150 percent of the husband’s benefits. If a woman
becomes a widow, she is entitled to 100 percent of her late husband’s benefits. In
2007 the average survivor benefit was $1,023 per month (Social Security Adminis-
tration, 2008).


The lowest number ever issued was SSN 001-01-0001. for $22.54. She lived to the age of 100 and during
The smallest payment ever made was for 5 cents. her 35 years as a beneficiary, she received over
$22,000 in benefits.
The first monthly retirement check was issued to a
retired legal secretary, Ida May Fuller of Vermont, Source: Social Security Administration, 2000.
160 Chapter 7


Advocates and opponents of Social Security battled openly over passage of the pro-
gram. Today, although there are varying views on how to best strengthen the So-
cial Security program, it enjoys bipartisan support. Conservatives and liberals alike
claim to support the program, albeit with variations on how to best structure cer-
tain parts of it.
Overwhelming support was not always present. Opposition to the Social Secu-
rity Act during the 1930s included accusations of socialism and concerns about de-
pendency. New Jersey Senator A. Harry Moore said that “It would take all the
romance out of life. We might as well take a child from the nursery, give him a
nurse, and protect him from every experience that life affords.” Racism was evident
in some views, as exemplified in this quote from the Jackson (Mississippi) Daily
News: “The average Mississippian can’t imagine himself chipping in to pay pen-
sions for able-bodied Negroes to sit around in idleness on front galleries, support-
ing all their kinfolks on pensions, while cotton and corn crops are crying for
workers to get them out of the grass” (Leuchtenburg, 1963, p. 131). Today such
criticisms seem unthinkable, but during the 1930s, the passage of Social Security
was seen as a major social welfare initiative and met with stiff resistance from
many quarters.
From the beginning, the social insurance provisions of the Social Security Act
have been viewed differently than the public assistance programs. In order to main-
tain public support, the administrators and supporters of Social Security publicized
the insurance aspect of the program:
Because insurance implied a return for work and investment, it preserved the self-
respect of the beneficiaries; because it implied a return in proportion to investment, it
satisfied a widely held conception of fairness; and because it implied the existence of a
contract, it appeared sound and certain. (Derthick, 1979, p. 199)

The concepts of insurance, fairness, and entitlement, which are firmly ingrained
in the popular perception of the program, have solidified public acceptance of the
program. Social Security is the most widely supported social welfare policy in our
country. The public support is well warranted. The Social Security program plays
an important role in improving the social well-being of our country.


Monthly Social Security benefits are vital for millions of seniors. The Social Secu-
rity program directly touches most seniors’ lives. Ninety-one percent of people
aged 65 and older receive Social Security benefits (Social Security Administration,
2008). For elderly persons with low incomes, Social Security provides nearly 90
percent of their retirement income; for those with middle incomes, 75 percent
of their retirement income; and for those with high incomes, 24 percent of their
retirement income (Congressional Quarterly, 2000). Social Security is the main
source of income for two thirds of all elderly people (Social Security Administra-
tion, 2008). Social Security benefits have reduced the number of elderly people
who live in poverty, lifting 13 million seniors age 65 and older above the poverty
Social Insurance 161

line (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2005). Almost half of elderly people
(47 percent) had incomes below the poverty line before they received Social Secu-
rity benefits. With monthly benefits, the proportion dropped to less than 9 percent.
For 20 percent of those workers who are 65 or older, Social Security is the only
source of income, and for 65 percent of all recipients aged 65 and over, Social
Security is at least half of their total money income (Social Security Administration,
2005). Without monthly benefits, millions of senior citizens would be in poverty or
financially dependent on their children or other family members.
The inequalities of the workplace, particularly racism and sexism, are com-
pounded with age. For many elderly persons, the OASDI program is a safety net
that prevents them from falling into poverty after they retire. Over the past
40 years, the poverty rate for the elderly has dropped from 35 percent to less than
10 percent (Binstock, 1990; U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). This decrease in poverty
among the elderly is directly related to increases in Social Security benefits and is
evidence of the program’s effectiveness.
The original design of the program actually benefited the typical woman of the
1930s. Most women did not work outside the home, and the program was de-
signed with that in mind. As spouses, women are entitled to 50 percent of their
husband’s retirement benefit while he is alive, and 100 percent after he dies. For
married women, this structure is very beneficial. Most women on their own would
not earn as much as men and, consequently, would not receive as large a payment.
Although the tax structure of the Social Security program is regressive, the ben-
efits are progressive, that is, the program redistributes income from those who have
higher incomes to those who have less. An example based on data from the trustees
report in 2008 demonstrates the progressive nature of Social Security. A worker
who earned average wages over his or her career and retired at age 65 years in
2008 received annual Social Security benefits equal to 39 percent of his or her aver-
age annual earnings. Social Security would replace 53 percent of the average an-
nual earnings of a low-earning worker, and 32 percent of the average annual
earnings of a high-earning worker. So, although high-earning workers receive
more money in their monthly Social Security checks, they receive a smaller portion
of their earnings (Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insur-
ance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds, 2008).


Initially, the program had some defects (McElvaine, 1993). The first limitation of
the Social Security program was that not all workers were covered. For example,
to gain the support of southerners, farm and domestic workers were excluded
from coverage. By 2008, coverage had become almost universal, with 96 percent
of all work covered by the OASDI program. The second limitation was that the
program was funded through payroll taxes as opposed to general tax revenues, as
demonstrated in the preceding section. Although this format proportionately taxed
lower-income workers more than higher earners, over time it has had the effect of
creating universal investment in the program—for people paying in, it is perceived
as their program and an entitlement. This relationship has strengthened public
162 Chapter 7

There were significant limitations for women and people of color as well. In
part, limitations based on gender and race reflected the social and political realities
of the 1930s. Women tended to have lower lifetime earnings than men and, there-
fore, their average benefits were lower. This situation still exists today. Further-
more, the program was based on the family model of married, stay-at-home
mothers, a model that is not as pervasive today. A woman who never marries and
works her whole life may receive much lower benefits than a woman who married
but never worked outside the home or paid into the system. The married woman
will be eligible to receive 50 percent of her husband’s benefits while he is alive,
and 100 percent when he dies. That may be more than the benefits received by a
woman who has worked and paid into the system her whole life.
Racism was still significant in employment practices throughout the South in
1935. Initially, farm and domestic workers, the predominant categories of African-
American workers, were excluded from the program. Migrant workers were also
excluded, as were any workers not paid official wages. It was not until 1954 that
farm and domestic workers were added to the program. The level of benefits for
women and people of color demonstrates the disparity in earnings and coverage.
The average monthly benefit for a white retired worker was $1,065 in 2006, com-
pared with $920 for an African-American retired worker, and $904 for a woman
(Social Security Administration, 2008).
Even today, a disproportionate number of women and people of color work
for employers who do not, although it is illegal, report workers’ wages to the gov-
ernment. Therefore, these workers will not receive benefits from the Social Security
program. Employers often justify this practice by saying they can pay more directly
to workers if they do not have to take deductions to pay the tax, so workers re-
ceive more cash up front rather than having to contribute to FICA. Although this
is true in the short term, it penalizes workers as they age. When a person spends
years working but not paying FICA taxes and has no retirement provisions, he or
she may struggle after retirement. Jobs in areas such as migrant farm labor, domes-
tic cleaning services, landscaping, low-level service work such as dishwashing, and
child care are disproportionately populated by women and people of color. When
uncovered workers age, even though they may have worked for decades, they are
excluded from the retirement coverage of Social Security.
There is a common belief that Social Security is a retirement program, but in
reality OASDI benefits are not sufficient to provide a comfortable retirement of lei-
sure and travel. The average benefits are about $12,000 a year—not enough to
comfortably support people in retirement. It is important for people to understand
that Social Security is an economic safety net meant to keep people from poverty.
As such, it is a highly successful social welfare program. However, planning for re-
tirement must include more than Social Security. As people age they need to con-
sider employer pensions and personal retirement savings in addition to Social
Not all older people depend on Social Security. Receipt of Social Security is not
linked to economic means. Thus, for some workers it is a monthly check that is not
necessarily needed. The universality of the program allows that whether people are
rich or poor, as long as they paid into the program, they are eligible to receive bene-
fits. Unlike public assistance, Social Security is regarded as an entitlement program.
Social Insurance 163

People believe they have a right to receive benefits because they have paid into
the system. If a person dies before reaching retirement, however, he or she will not
receive anything (although the person’s eligible survivors will receive benefits). If,
on the other hand, a person lives for many years past retirement, the person may
receive more money than he or she actually paid into the system. The Congressio-
nal Research Service calculated that retirees in 1980 received through monthly
benefits the equivalent of all the contributions paid in over their work lives in just
3 years of retirement (Pearlstein, 1993). In 1995, the typical single-earner couple
who retired could expect to receive two and one-half times the total amount the
earner had contributed (Crenshaw, 1996). Historically, most Social Security recipi-
ents received more in benefits than the total amount they had paid in over their
working years. With more people living longer and benefits higher, that trend will
vary by levels of pre-retirement earnings. For low earners, lifetime Social Security
benefits will average twice as much as they paid in, for middle income earners the
amount of lifetime benefits will average about what they paid in, whereas for the
highest 20 percent of earners, social security will pay out an average of about
65 percent of their lifetime contribution (Congressional Budget Office, 2006). It is
important to remember that Social Security is not a retirement program. The com-
parison of taxes paid in versus benefits paid out is misleading. Those averages in-
clude people who paid in but may have died before receiving any benefits, as well
as people who far outlived others and received much more than they paid in. Rather
than focus on Social Security as an investment—getting more than one paid in—we
need to ask whether the millions who receive Social Security each year would have
been able to, or been disciplined enough to save that money during their working
years. The program emphasizes a social or shared commitment, not reliance on indi-
viduals. We all need to ask ourselves whether we would have saved the 7.65 percent
taken out of our paychecks diligently, every payday for all our working years, or
whether we would have used those dollars for other purposes. Based on American
savings rates (which is less than a half percent on average over the past several
years), the answer is likely that we would not have saved the money for retirement.
Social Security provides the framework to discipline workers to save for retirement.
Demographic changes raise concerns about the financial strength of the Social Se-
curity system. Since the system’s inception, there have been more workers paying into
the system than there have been recipients receiving benefits. In 1960, there were 5.1
workers per beneficiary, and in 2007, there were only 3.3 workers per beneficiary.
However, this rate has remained relatively constant, remaining between 3.2 and 3.4
since 1974. By 2030, it is projected that there will only be 2.2 workers per beneficiary
(Board of Trustees, 2008). In addition, in about 30 years there will be twice as many
older people as there are today. Health care advances are helping people to live longer.
With more people living longer, there will be more recipients and hence more dollars
will be needed to pay for the benefits. These factors reflect the aging of America, which
in turn places a greater demand on the Social Security program.


The solvency crisis is not new to the Social Security program. Over the years, gen-
erous benefits were set by Congress based on the amount of money paid into the
164 Chapter 7

trust fund each year. This form of redistribution did not take into account chang-
ing demographics. During the early years of the Social Security system, there were
many more people working than receiving benefits. As the population ages and
people live longer, the number of people receiving benefits increases whereas the
number of people working and paying into the system decreases. This imbalance
led to ominous predictions in the early 1980s that the Social Security system would
run out of money. In 1983, policy analysts calculated that the system would be
bankrupt in 10 years. Fortunately, the system did not go bankrupt, because law-
makers made legislative decisions to change the program. The key changes were as
follows: The retirement age limit was raised from 65 to 67 years, to be phased in
over time; cost-of-living increases in benefits were delayed; the withholding tax
was increased; and the taxable income ceiling was raised. These legislative changes
created a surplus in funds that accumulated to cover the increase in the number of
retirees for the next 30 years. The 1983 legislative changes averted the solvency cri-
sis for several decades.
Recent legislative changes have made the program more responsive to current
needs. In 2000, the Senior Citizen’s Freedom to Work Act (P.L. 106-182) was en-
acted. This legislation removed barriers so that seniors could work without having
their benefits reduced. The original design of the program was to keep older people
out of the workforce because jobs were desperately needed for young people. As
demographics shift, there are fewer workers to support the system, and people
who are older still want to work. Prior to the 2000 legislative change, income
earned after retirement reduced a person’s Social Security benefits. This legislation
lifted the cap on earnings. This change is another example of how amending the
program ensures its fit with current social welfare needs.
Currently, more than 25 years after the 1983 legislative changes, concern for
the financial stability of Social Security is once again receiving political attention.
For the past several years, the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survi-
vors Insurance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds has voiced concern over the
financial solvency of the Social Security program. In their 2007 report, they pro-
jected that without any changes, the trust funds would be exhausted by 2041.
There would still be taxes paid in, so the program would not be bankrupt, but it
would run out of the surplus accumulated to cover the growing number of retirees.
After 2041, the system would be drawing on current contributions. Based on the
board’s projections, from 2041 to 2082 the current rate of contributions would
allow payment of 75 percent of anticipated benefits. Having enough revenue for
more than 30 years gives policy makers time for planning. However, the program
is so important that policy makers should make changes soon. If they do so, bene-
ficiaries will not have to deal with changes that they did not anticipate.


Social Security seems to be a permanent expectation of Americans of all income
levels. To ensure the continuation of the program, some difficult political decisions
must be made. Policy makers will have to decide how to keep the system financially
solvent as baby boomers grow older and become retirees and as people live longer.
The policy choices for maintaining Social Security include cutting benefits, limiting
Social Insurance 165

eligibility, raising taxes, or creating other forms of investment for old age. Those
choices are typically not supported by voting constituencies, and, hence, elected of-
ficials will try to stay away from them for as long as possible. Political urgency and
economic urgency sometimes become enmeshed, and it is difficult to understand
the true dimensions of the problem of Social Security. Box 7.5 highlights the heated
political arguments concerning Social Security that followed President Bush’s
reelection and his pledge to amend the Social Security program. His attempts
failed, and throughout his presidency, Congress took no action to address the
Social Security Trust Fund’s solvency. With millions of older people currently
receiving benefits and most workers paying into the system, all citizens are directly
or indirectly affected by the political debate over the system.


What is the best way to address the future of the proposing a risky solution that would make them
Social Security program? worse, not better” (Allen, 2005, p. 11).
In 2005, President George W. Bush advocated cre-
Who is right?
ating a system of private or personal accounts for
According to estimates, it is possible that Social
younger workers that would supplant some of their
Security could run out of funds, but that would be
current contributions. Opponents of the proposal
offset by current contributions so that even in 75
worried that it would be too costly and would not
years, there would be enough to pay more than two
address the problem of solvency.
thirds of the expenses. Imagine looking back 75
years, to the first years of the Great Depression, and
Yes, it would work:
trying to estimate what 2005 would look like. It would
“Bush aides say that the president’s plan would
be impossible to foresee all the events and economic
wipe out a long-term structural deficit facing the
changes. That is not to say that planners should not
nation in coming decades and that the transition
attempt to ensure the strength of the program with
costs in the next decade or so will ultimately be
possible changes, but dire warnings of events that
overshadowed by the benefits” (Weisman & Baker,
might happen in 75 years are wildly speculative.
2005, p. 10).
Robert Ball, the Commissioner of Social Security
from 1962 to 1973, writes:
No, it would make things worse:
“If Congress were to pass Bush’s Social Security As things stand, the trustees’ annual release of
plan…the budget deficit would climb steadily to $335 their latest 75-year estimates becomes a sky-
billion by 2015” (Weisman & Baker, 2005, p. 10). is-falling media circus. The middle-range esti-
mates are reported as if they were meant to be
What is wrong? exact and immutable rather than as one of many
According to President Bush, “Social Security was possibilities. What is really the trustees’ tentative
a great moral success of the 20th century and we expectation of a possible distant shortfall is
must honor its great purpose in this new century. transformed into a looming “crisis,” prompting
The system, however, on its current path, is headed millions of Americans to believe, wrongly, that
toward bankruptcy” (Balz, 2005, p. 6). Social Security is doomed unless it gets a radical
According to Democratic representative Rush D. overhaul. Social Security doesn’t require radical
Holt of New Jersey, the Social Security system has “reforms” because it hasn’t failed. The system
been one of the most successful social welfare that has served so many so well for so long just
programs and the president is “overstating the needs some timely maintenance work (Ball,
system’s long-term problems of insolvency and 2004, pp. 22–23).
166 Chapter 7


As stated previously, under the current provisions, the Social Security trust funds
are projected to run out of surplus funds by 2041, and only three fourths of the an-
ticipated benefits will be funded by 2082. What does this mean? Threats to the
financial solvency, or permanency, of the Social Security program have caused
great concern. There are conflicting points of view about the financial strength of
the system.
Supporters of the Social Security system argue that although financial solvency
is important, the projected situation for the 34-year horizon described by the Social
Security Board of Trustees does not constitute a crisis. Two factors are critical: (1)
Incremental changes can be made to alter the financial forecast. (2) Demographics
are difficult to predict and, therefore, the overall situation may turn out to be posi-
tive for the financial health of the system.
Incremental changes include raising the tax rate, raising the ceiling on income
taxed, raising the retirement age, or decreasing benefits, or any combination of
these changes. These are politically difficult, but structurally easy, choices. All
these factors were set by legislators and can therefore be changed by legislators.
For example, in 1935 life expectancy was significantly lower than it is today.
Just over the past 40 years, life expectancy has increased from 71 years to almost
78 years, and by 2015 it will be approaching 80 years (U.S. Census Bureau,
2007). When the Social Security program was established, 65 years was consid-
ered old age, and the average life expectancy was not many years beyond that.
Today, if a person retires at 65 years, he or she can expect to live for another
15 to 20 years, if not longer. The legislative changes of 1983 acknowledged this
change by gradually raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 years. This issue
should perhaps be revisited, and the retirement age raised to 68 or 69 years. It is
estimated that a one-year increase in the age for retirement will decrease the aver-
age lifetime benefits paid to a worker by 7 percent (Congressional Quarterly,
2000). A change such as that would add years to the financial solvency of the
system. Furthermore, as people live longer, they may choose to work longer or
work part-time. As the 2000 legislative changes demonstrated, more people want
to work while they are retired. This too adds unexpected tax revenue to the trust
Another possible change might be to raise the ceiling for contributions. The
cutoff of $106,800 means that all income earned over that amount is not taxed
for the retirement portion of the trust fund. What if the ceiling were raised to
$150,000? That would amount to about $3,000 more per year for people earning
more than the current capped level up to a new level of $150,000. Currently,
84 percent of all U.S. earnings are taxed for the Social Security retirement portion.
Raising that amount to 90 percent (which would affect about 9 percent of Ameri-
can workers, all of whom are high earners) would cut the 75 year shortfall in the
Trust Fund by almost half (Center for Retirement Research, 2007). Such changes
would extend the solvency of the program.
Immigration is another issue related to Social Security. Historically, immigra-
tion has added to the numbers of active workers and usually these workers come
to this country at a young age. The influx of young workers has added to the
Social Insurance 167

numbers of active contributors to the Social Security program, and helped to keep
the worker/retiree ratio stable over the past 30 years. If we significantly decrease
the rate of immigration, there will be a lower influx of new, younger workers to
contribute to the Social Security system.
Economics plays an important part in the projections of solvency. The past few
years have been ones of higher unemployment and consequently less income taxed
for contributions to the program. If employment increases and wages grow, contri-
butions will also increase. At the same time, if unemployment rises, there will be a
decline in worker contributions. The cycle of employment affects the solvency of
the program.
It would be foolish not to attend to the solvency concerns of the Social Security
program. Even though the decisions are politically difficult, acting sooner rather
than later means that the changes will not have to be as great. And in perspective,
the 34-year horizon of 2007 is far better than the 10-year horizon of the 1980s.
This means we have ample time to amend the system to ensure its financial health
for decades to come.


One of the most contested ideas for improving the Social Security system is to
privatize parts of it. This means that instead of the current system, in which all
contributions are collectively held by the federal government, each person could
earmark a part of his or her contributions for a private program. Advocates of
the privatization of Social Security argue that creating privately invested accounts
would encourage more individual responsibility and offer workers the opportunity
to earn larger benefits. The idea behind privatization is that a portion of the
money an individual would pay into the current Social Security system would be
diverted to a private investment account. The growth and returns on the account
would accrue to the individual. The performance of the investment would rest
with the market and with the savvy of the individual in managing his or her
Critics of the privatization approach worry that those who understand finan-
cial markets and investment will do well, but those who do not will be worse off.
Private investments would also be subject to more risk, stock market volatility,
and high fees for administration of the funds. The premise of the Social Security
Act was to find a safety net that would be there when the vicissitudes of the mar-
ketplace went awry. The market collapse and economic upheaval of the 1930s
demonstrated how unstable the marketplace can be. Privatization would return
the system to that unpredictability. Privatization would be a major step away from
the principles of the New Deal, which built a guaranteed benefit for the elderly,
their survivors, and people with disabilities. Furthermore, critics argue that the
option to privatize one’s investments is already available and that millions of
people choose this option already. They also argue that it is not responsible to risk
the savings of those least likely to afford the volatility of the private market, low
earners who are disproportionately unskilled in understanding the investment
market. The economic downturn and steep stock market decline of 2007–2009
168 Chapter 7

provided further evidence supporting the opposition to privatization of Social

Another option that has elements of privatization is to change the way the
trust fund is invested. Currently, trust fund money can be invested only in Treasury
Bonds, which are very stable and conservative. Supporters of privatization suggest
that a more aggressive investment program for the trust fund would bring in
greater revenues. One way to achieve this would be to allow trust funds to be in-
vested in the stock market and other more risky venues. Again, the argument
against this centers on security and guaranteed benefits. Allowing the volatility of
the market to affect the solvency of the trust fund is risky and contrary to the
founding principles of the Social Security program.
The solution to funding Social Security likely rests with a combination of
changes, similar to what was done in 1983. For example, the payroll tax rate could
be raised by one percent for both employers and employees (making the contribu-
tion 8.65% for workers). Such an increase would completely reduce the Social
Security Trust Fund shortfall for the next 75 years (Center for Retirement research,
2007). Combining such a payroll tax increase with raising the cap as already dis-
cussed would provide a surplus in the Trust Fund over the next 75 years. Shifting
other factors such as raising the retirement age or changing the cost of living in-
crease in benefits would add even more. There are numerous options available, the
difficulty is the politics of making these decisions.


The social insurance programs of the Social Security Act embody the values of so-
cial responsibility and social support. There are no guarantees that each of us will
live long enough to receive social insurance benefits, but we pay in for that possi-
bility. Our contributions also fund a collective form of care for others. Social insur-
ance was founded during a time when system failure was recognized. People
realized that economic need might not be brought on by individual failure as
much as failure of the economic structure. It even reflects the value of aiding stran-
gers, as we pool our contributions and ultimately pay for people we do not person-
ally know. People feel connected to the program and entitled to it, further
reinforcing its support.
The greatest underlying struggle in supporting the Social Security system is the
extent of belief a person has in individual responsibility versus social responsibility.
If you hold strongly to individual rights and privacy, then the social aspects of the
program will be difficult to accept. If you believe in shared responsibility, even for
people you do not know, then the program delivers those values. Most of the argu-
ments about changing the program rest on those divergent beliefs, the value of indi-
vidual rights versus social responsibility.
In addition, although paying into Social Security is a form of covering one’s
own needs, it is also a payment for the security of others anonymously. This re-
quires a social commitment to people we will never know. This too is a conflicting
value in America, the struggle between taking care of your own and helping
Social Insurance 169


Social Security is our oldest continuing federal social welfare program. It has re-
ceived support from every president since 1935 (see Box 7.6). It embodies values
of universalism and institutionalism, as well as a belief in the importance of social
responsibility. As a social insurance program, its risks are shared among the entire
population and it offers a safety net to individuals who have less financial means.
That it has endured for 75 years is a testament to its acceptance as a key social
welfare program. We are all affected by Social Security and need to understand
how each of us is a part of the program (see Box 7.7). Although there are concerns
about its future, its enmeshment with our social, economic, and political fabric
makes it likely to continue for generations to come.


Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has disability, death, or old age could leave them or
supported Social Security. Here are some of their their families destitute.” (December 20, 1977)
statements: Ronald Reagan: “[This law] assures the elderly that
Franklin Roosevelt: “We can never insure one- America will always keep the promises made in
hundred percent of the population against one- troubled times a half century ago…[The Social
hundred percent of the vicissitudes of life. But we Security Amendments of 1983 are] a monument
have tried to frame a law that will give some mea- to the spirit of compassion and commitment that
sure of protection to the average citizen and to his unites us as a people.” (April 20, 1983)
family against the loss of a job and against poverty- George H. W. Bush: “To every American out there
ridden old age. This law, too, represents a corner- on Social Security, to every American supporting
stone in a structure which is being built, but is by no that system today, and to everyone counting on it
means complete…that will take care of human when they retire, we made a promise to you, and
needs and at the same time provide for the United we are going to keep it.” (January 31, 1990)
States an economic structure of vastly greater Bill Clinton: “Social Security…reflects some of our
soundness.” (August 14, 1935) deepest values—the duties we owe to our parents,
Dwight Eisenhower: “We will… endeavor to ad- the duties we owe to each other when we’re in dif-
minister the disability [program] efficiently and ef- ferent situations in life, the duties we owe to our
fectively…to help rehabilitate the disabled so that children and our grandchildren. Indeed, it reflects
they may return to useful employment…I am hope- our determination to move forward across genera-
ful that this new law…will advance the economic tions and across the income divides in our country,
security of the American people.” (August 13, 1945) as one America.” (February 9, 1998)
Richard Nixon: “I have today signed [legislation George W. Bush: “Social Security is one of the great-
which]…constitutes a major breakthrough for older est achievements of the American government, and
Americans, for it says at last that inflation-proof So- one of the deepest commitments to the American
cial Security benefits are theirs as a matter of people. For more than six decades it has protected
right…” (July 1, 1972) our elderly against poverty and assured young people
Jimmy Carter: “The Social Security program… of a more secure future. It must continue to do this
represents our commitment as a society to the important work for decades to come” (April, 2004)
belief that workers should not live in dread that a Source: Social Security Administration, 2000 & 2008
170 Chapter 7


With technology, each person can stay abreast of http:/ Screening tool to see if you
his or her Social Security contributions and future are currently eligible for Social Security, SSI, or
benefits. Medicare benefits. Use the Social Online application
Security Benefit Calculators to calculate for retirement benefits.
your future retirement benefits. Three planning pro-
grams are shown to help you estimate future
Social Security retirement benefits.

Key Terms
social insurance Unemployment Federal Insurance Social Security trust
Old-Age, Survivors, Insurance (UI) Contribution Act fund
and Disability public assistance (FICA) progressive tax
Insurance (OASDI) regressive tax
New Deal

Questions for Discussion

1. Do you think Social Security should con- 4. What changes would you recommend for the
tinue as a socially shared program, or should future to ensure the strength of the Social
it include private investment options? Security program?
2. What is an appropriate retirement age? 5. Explain the differences between social in-
Why? surance and public assistance.
3. Should benefits be limited for people with
high incomes? Why?

1. Make an appointment to visit a local Social age, benefits, and time limits. Also, list
Security Administration office. Identify public attitudes and perceptions about the
yourself as a student and ask if you can re- programs. How do the programs differ?
ceive information on your status in the sys- How are they similar?
tem. For how many quarters have you paid 3. Identify a person who is receiving Social
in? What benefits are you entitled to? Are Security benefits. Ask if he or she might be
you eligible for disability coverage? At what willing to talk to you about the program.
age can you retire and receive full benefits? How do they feel about receiving Social
2. Divide a sheet of paper into two columns, Security? What did they think of the pro-
one for social insurance and another for gram when they were young? Have their
public assistance. List the characteristics of opinions changed? How do they think the
each program, including eligibility, cover- program could be improved?
Social Insurance 171

4. Visit some web sites about Social Security. promotes changing the program? What are
Can you find information that supports the the points made by each side? How do they
program? Can you find information that compare?

Allen, M. (2005). Mobilizing the opposition: Derthick, M. (1979). Policymaking for Social Security.
Democrats launch their campaign against Bush’s Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Social Security changes. Washington Post National Leuchtenburg, W. E. (1963). Franklin D. Roosevelt
Weekly Edition 22(18):11. and the New Deal. New York: Harper & Row.
Axinn, J., & Levin, H. (1975). Social welfare: A McElvaine, R. S. (1993). The Great Depression:
history of the American response to need. New America 1929–1941. New York: Times Books.
York: Harper & Row. Meyers, R. J. (1985). Social Security. Homewood, IL:
Ball, R. M. (2004). Just a little maintenance: We can Richard D. Irwin.
fix Social Security, if we manage the politics. Milkis, S. M., & Mileur, J. M. (eds.). (2002). The New
Washington Post National Weekly Edition Deal and the triumph of liberalism. Amherst, MA:
21(40):22–23. University of Massachusetts Press.
Balz, D. (2005). Soothing words: Assuring older Pearlstein, S. (1993). Battling for a slice of the pie: The
Americans, Bush makes case for Social Security young challenge their elders. The Washington Post
changes. Washington Post National Weekly National Weekly Edition 10(17):22.
Edition 22(16):6. Social Security Administration. (2008). Annual
Binstock, R. H. (1990). The politics and economics of Statistical Supplement, 2007. Washington, DC:
aging and diversity. In S. A. Bass, E. A. Kutza, & Author.
F. M. Torres-Gil (eds.), Diversity in aging, pp. Social Security Administration. (2007). Social Security
73–99. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman. Bulletin 67(4):122.
Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Social Security Administration. (2008). The Future of
Insurance and Disability Insurance Trust Funds. Social Security. Washington, DC: Author.
(2008). Annual report. Washington, DC: Author. Social Security Administration. (2000). A brief history
Center for Retirement Research. (2007). The Social of Social Security. Washington, DC: Author.
Security fix-it book. Boston: Trustees of Boston U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). Statistical abstract of the
College. United States: 2008, 127th ed. Washington, DC:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2005). Social U.S. Government Printing Office.
Security lifts 13 million seniors above the poverty Weisman, J., & Baker, P. (2005). What Bush’s
line. Washington, DC: Author. successor could inherit: Under the president’s
Congressional Budget Office. (2006). Is Social Security budget proposal, costs will balloon after he leaves
progressive? Washington, DC: Author. office. Washington Post National Weekly Edition
Congressional Quarterly. (2000). Issues in social 22(16):7.
policy. Washington, DC: CQ Press. Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United
Crenshaw, A. B. (1996). A stock answer to social States: 1492 to present. New York: HarperCollins.
security worries. The Washington Post National
Weekly Edition 13(32):22.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Segal

Poverty and Economic Inequality 173


How much income is enough for one Do you think a phone is a necessity? Is a
person? For a family of four? Ask another television? Is a car? What type of health
person for his or her estimates. Do you care is a necessity? Who should decide
agree? Why? What are the necessities a what the necessities are? Who should
person must have to live? What considera- be responsible for providing those
tions did you bring to your determination? necessities?

The United States is an affluent country with abundant resources. By most stan-
dards, it is the wealthiest nation in the world. In spite of general economic prosper-
ity, millions of Americans lack basic resources and opportunities for advancement.
Millions live in poverty. This chapter covers the extent of poverty in America, the
reasons why poverty exists, and the social welfare programs designed to address it.


There are a number of ways to define poverty. Agreement is lacking on what
exactly makes a person poor, although most agree that certain extremes are pres-
ent. For example, most people agree that not having a place to live or not having
plumbing is an aspect of poverty. But most cannot agree on how much living space
is enough or what constitutes adequate plumbing. What is poverty to one person
may not seem so bad to another.

There are two measures of poverty: absolute and relative. An absolute measure of
poverty uses a fixed, predetermined amount below which people are defined as
poor. A relative measure of poverty uses societal standards to assess the minimum
needed for a reasonable living situation, and anything less than that standard is
considered poor. In the United States, an absolute measure of poverty is used.
The absolute measure of poverty used today was developed in the 1960s. As
poverty emerged as an important social issue, government agencies grappled with
ways to define, assess, and respond to it. In 1963, the Social Security Administra-
tion (SSA) attempted to define what the necessary minimum income was for a fam-
ily. At that time, the SSA was responsible for programs designed to address
poverty. Two pieces of data were used to determine the official poverty threshold,
or the dollar amount set for the federal poverty measure. Informally, it is often re-
ferred to as the poverty line. The first piece of data used to develop the poverty
threshold was the amount of money it took to feed a family. The second statistic
was the proportion of family income that went toward food. In the words of the
creator of the poverty threshold, Mollie Orshansky, then director of the SSA,
“The standard itself is admittedly arbitrary, but not unreasonable. It is based essen-
tially on the amount of income remaining after allowance for an adequate diet at
minimum cost” (Orshansky, 1965, p. 4).
174 Chapter 8

Food costs were based on the Department of Agriculture’s “economy” food

plan. This diet itemized the cost for food in temporary or emergency situations.
This calculation was developed during the 1950s in response to concerns for disas-
ter planning, particularly in the event of nuclear war. The diet was not meant as a
long-term food plan but rather as the minimum needed to get through an emer-
gency. The other statistic available at the time was the Department of Agriculture’s
assessment that the average family spent one third of their income for food. There-
fore, the line was developed using the estimate for the economy food plan and mul-
tiplying that by three.
However, absolute and relative costs have changed over the years. Because of
growth in other family expenses such as housing and health care, food requires less
than one fifth of a typical necessity budget, not one third (Bernstein, Brocht, &
Spade-Aguilar, 2000). Figure 8.1 demonstrates this relationship. Consider that a fam-
ily of four needs $500 a month for food. If the 1960s relationship of one third were
used, then the entire family monthly budget would be calculated to equal $1,500
($500 is one third of $1,500). But if the more current proportion of 17 percent is
used, then the entire family budget would equal $2,941 ($500 is 17 percent of were
used $2,941). The SSA budget also did not address other needs that are costly today,
such as health care, child care, and transportation. In the administrative view of
what the typical family of the 1950s and 1960s looked like, there were two parents
and the mother stayed at home; therefore, there was no child care cost in dollar
terms. Furthermore, most people lived in the cities where factories and businesses
were clustered, so they had access to employment and public transportation. Now,
many workers live far from viable jobs and need a car to get to work. In addition,
health care costs have risen dramatically over the past 20 years and people today
pay more out-of-pocket costs than previous generations. Although the cost of food
has gone up, other expenses have too, and the proportions for family budgets have
The change in living costs in the almost 50 years following the creation of the
poverty threshold means that the absolute line below which people are officially
recognized as poor is proportionately much lower than when it was developed. If
a new line were to be constructed based on the typical cost of food in relation to
the other costs of living, and took into account the dramatic increases in child care
and health care, many millions more people would be officially counted as poor in
this country.
Another way to examine the validity of the poverty threshold is in comparison
to the income of a typical household. The poverty line in the 1960s for a family
of four was almost half of the median family income. Today it has dropped to
29 percent (Mishel, Bernstein, & Allegretto, 2007). Changing the poverty line to
reflect changes in economics would have an immediate impact on how many peo-
ple are categorized as poor. For example, if the poverty line were 25 percent
higher, 12 million more people would be counted as officially poor, raising the
rate more than 4 percentage points (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). Such an immediate
increase is a strong disincentive for policy makers to change the measure.
Why is an absolute measure used instead of a relative measure? Although
many assumptions and values go into both determinations, in the end the absolute
measure is fixed and less debatable. Viewing poverty from a relative perspective
Poverty and Economic Inequality 175

1963 formula for poverty threshold based on 1960s distribution of income

Food 33%

All other
expenses 67%

2000 estimates for distribution of income

Child care

Based on Bernstein, Brocht, & Spade-Aguilar, 2000.

All other expenses


22% 9%
Housing Health care

* All other expenses include telephone, clothing, school supplies, personal care supplies, entertainment.

FIGURE 8.1 |
involves a host of variables. For example, is a telephone a luxury or a necessity?
If you have small children or are looking for a job, a phone will most likely feel
very much like a necessity. For many parents, a portable cellular phone is a neces-
sity. The knowledge that they can be reached at any time if an emergency should
arise feels indispensable. If a cellular phone is a relative necessity, many people
would define poverty as the lack of resources to acquire such a phone.
The poverty threshold has been used since the 1960s to measure the extent of
poverty in the United States. The threshold has been changed only to reflect infla-
tion and is adjusted for family size. However, it is not the standard used to deter-
mine eligibility for social welfare programs. Instead, the Department of Health and
Human Services uses poverty guidelines. The poverty guidelines are issued each
year and “are a simplification of the poverty thresholds for use for administrative
purposes—for instance determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs”
176 Chapter 8


The following dollar amounts were determined to be realistic monthly minimums for a family of four in the
following communities in 2005:

Minneapolis, MN Johnstown, PA Denver, CO Boston, MA

Food 587 587 587 587

Housing 928 428 888 1266
Health care 345 338 334 592
Transportation 358 375 358 321
Child care 1364 954 1001 1298
Taxes 588 243 394 824
Other 409 274 398 500
(e.g., telephone, clothing, school supplies, personal care)
TOTAL $4,579 $3,199 $3,960 $5,388
Percent of Poverty
Threshold 287% 200% 248% 338%
These amounts were two to three times higher than the poverty threshold of $1,596.50 per month
(or $19,157 for the year).
The poverty threshold is set extremely low in comparison to the minimal expenses of the typical family.
Do you think the above budget is too little, too much, or just right?
How does your family and living situation compare?
Source: Allegretto, 2005

(Department of Health and Human Services, 2008, p. 3971). Although the num-
bers are not identical, the poverty guidelines closely follow the threshold. Box 8.3
lists the 2008 poverty guidelines.


According to the official definition of poverty, in 2007, over 37 million people were
below the poverty threshold. This was 12.5 percent of the population, or one in
eight people in the United States (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008). The larg-
est single group within the larger group of poor people were children. Thirty-six
percent of those who were poor were under the age of 18 years. Almost 10 percent
were over 65 years of age. Therefore, almost half the people who are poor in this
country are in the vulnerable age categories of youth or the aged. Poverty during
the early 1960s, before the major federal social welfare response of the War on
Poverty, affected over 20 percent of the population. However, government interven-
tion in the way of cash assistance, in-kind benefits, and prevention efforts seems to
have made a difference. As Box 8.4 demonstrates, the poverty rates over the past
45 years decreased following the antipoverty efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, and
Poverty and Economic Inequality 177

BOX 8.3

48 Contiguous States
Size of Family and D.C. Alaska Hawaii

1 $10,400 $13,000 $11,960

2 $14,000 $17,500 $16,100
3 $17,600 $22,000 $20,240
4 $21,200 $26,500 $24,380
For each additional
person, add $3,600 $4,500 $4,140
Source: Department of Health and Human Services, 2008

rose with the cutbacks of the 1980s. The second half of the 1990s saw an improve-
ment over the previous 15 years, likely as a result of the unprecedented economic
growth of that decade. In recent years, the poverty rate has begun to rise, from 11.3
percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2004. It has tapered off a bit, although the impact
of the economic downturn in recent years will likely cause the percent to rise. Al-
though the rate is still lower than in the 1990s, the increase raises concerns that the
economic downturn of the early 2000s had an impact on those who are poor, and
the additional downturn of 2007 and 2008 is resulting in greater numbers in poverty.


Using the words “the poor” sounds as if there is one group or one identity that
shares a commonality, poverty. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although the poverty threshold identifies who is officially counted as poor accord-
ing to income, the people who constitute that group vary widely.

The Working Poor One might assume that poverty is a result of lack of work. In
fact, there is a strong national belief that hard work is rewarded with economic
gain. Furthermore, the harder one works, the more one can achieve. Although this
is true for some, it is not true for all. Consider the experience of Barbara Ehren-
reich (2001), a successful author, well-renowned scholar, and holder of a Ph.D.
Ehrenreich joined the ranks of service workers and documented her attempts at
working full-time and earning enough to support herself. She visited three different
cities and held various entry-level service jobs. “You might think that unskilled
jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a Ph.D ... not so. The first thing I
discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly ‘unskilled.’ Every one of
the six jobs I entered into in the course of this project required concentration, and
most demanded that I master new terms, new tools, and new skills...” (p. 193).
Ehrenreich found that only if she worked two jobs, 7 days a week, could she afford
the most basic of necessities, and she was supporting only herself. Ehrenreich
had joined the ranks of the working poor, those who live in poverty despite
178 Chapter 8


Author calculations based on data in Proctor & Dalaker (2003); DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Mills (2004); and
DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith (2008).

Persons in Poverty Children in Poverty

1960–1964 20.72% 1960–1964 24.72%

1965–1969 14.22% 1965–1969 16.96%
1970–1974 11.86% 1970–1974 15.06%
1975–1979 11.76% 1975–1979 16.32%
1980–1984 14.32% 1980–1984 20.80%
1985–1989 13.36% 1985–1989 20.12%
1990–1994 14.42% 1990–1994 21.84%
1995–1999 13.06% 1995–1999 19.40%
2000–2004 12.06% 2000–2004 16.92%
2005 12.6% 2005 17.6%
2006 12.3% 2006 17.4%
2007 12.5% 2007 18.0%

employment. “The term by which they are usually described, ‘working poor,’
should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America”
(Shipler, 2004, p. ix). In spite of that observation, the fact remains that there are
millions of working poor in America.
During the late 1990s, 5.2 million families with children had incomes that
placed them below the federal poverty line, yet 76 percent had one or more work-
ing parent and 31 percent had a worker employed year-round full-time (Tenny &
Zahradnik, 2001). These statistics were recorded during a period of strong eco-
nomic growth. Since then, the economy experienced a recession, bounced back for
a few years, and has fallen again. Unemployment has climbed, and those hardest
hit have been low-income workers and families. For people already on the margin
economically, recession and unemployment portend worse economic conditions.
One of the trends that has contributed to the depth of poverty even for those who
are working is the income disparity in this country. Economic growth over the past
25 years has not benefited all workers. As Box 8.5 outlines, income growth has
benefited those who already were economically well off. The top 20 percent of
households in this country realized an increase of almost 50 percent (over inflation)
or $56,576 in their annual household incomes, while the bottom 20 percent of
households realized an increase of 12 percent or $1,225 in income. With all the
economic growth of the past 30 years, those at the top benefited more than
those at the bottom. One theory is that this inequity may be because the “growing
power of technology and the increasingly competitive economic climate seem to be
pushing toward declining rewards for less-skilled workers and greater pay for
Poverty and Economic Inequality 179


2007 2000 1990 1980 1970 1960 1950 1941 1935

20% 49.7 49.6 46.6 43.7 43.3 45.4 46.1 48.8 51.7
Fourth 20% 23.4 23.0 24.0 24.9 24.5 22.7 22.1 22.3 20.9
Third 20% 14.8 14.8 15.9 16.9 17.4 16.4 16.1 15.3 14.1
20% 8.7 8.9 9.6 10.3 10.8 10.9 10.9 9.5 9.2
Lowest 3.4 3.6 3.9 4.3 4.1 4.6 4.8 4.1 4.1
Source: DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008; DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Mills, 2004; U.S. Census Bureau, 2001;
McElvaine, 1993

Mean Household Income (income held in constant 2007 dollars)

2007 2000 1990 1980

Highest 20% 167,971 171,297 134,006 111,395

Fourth 20% 79,111 79,049 69,053 62,477
Third 20% 49,968 50,850 45,799 42,408
Second 20% 29,442 30,535 27,728 25,700
Lowest 20% 11,551 12,229 11,020 10,326
Source: DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008

Percent Change from 1980–2007 (in constant dollars)

Percent change Dollar change

Highest 20% + 52% + $56,576

Fourth 20% + 27% + $16,634
Third 20% + 18% + $7,560
Second 20% + 15% + $3,742
Lowest 20% + 12% + 1,225

(author’s calculations)

more-skilled workers” (Ellwood et al., 2000, p. 31). Other reasons may include
business and economic growth and tax breaks that favored high earners over low
earners. The economic climate includes the closing of factories and manufacturing
plants in this country, which typically offered better-paying jobs. These jobs have
been replaced by growth in the service sector, which offers lower-paying jobs. The
result of this shift is greater economic imbalance between those at the top and
those at the bottom, and more people who fall into the category of working poor.
180 Chapter 8

Women and Poverty Gender is a critical component of poverty. Women are

more likely than men to be among those who are poor. This phenomenon was
identified as the feminization of poverty (Pearce, 1978). On average, women earn
78 cents for each dollar men earn (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008). Al-
though this ratio is an improvement over the ratio of female to male earnings dur-
ing the 1970s and 1980s, it has been stagnant since 1996. By the year 2007, the
median income for women working full-time, year-round in the United States was
$35,102 compared with $45,113 for men. Even when comparing equal work
status and education, men fared better than women. For example, for men who
worked full-time and had a bachelor’s degree or better, the average annual
income in 2005 was $87,777. For comparable women, the average income was
$55,222 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).

Children and Poverty As outlined in Box 8.4, children are the most likely group
to live in poverty. This trend grew during the 1980s, and was identified as the
juvenilization of poverty (Segal, 1991; Wilson, 1985). In spite of recent progress
in decreasing the rate of poverty, children are still poor in greater proportions
than any other age group. The social implications for millions of children raised
in poverty are significant. Childhood poverty is linked to poor health, lower educa-
tional attainment, dangerous living situations, and a higher likelihood of experienc-
ing disadvantaged life outcomes.
In addition to a moral imperative to provide a safe and healthy upbringing for
children, there is a strong economic rationale. Research documents the relationship
between childhood poverty and lower lifetime earnings, poor health, and a propen-
sity to commit crime. The costs to the U.S. economy are significant. Focusing on
lost productivity, each year childhood poverty reduces the Gross Domestic Product
by almost 1.3 percent, raises the cost of crime by 1.3 percent of GDP, and raises
health expenditures 1.2 percent of GDP. Together the costs related to childhood
poverty are about $500 billion a year (Holzer et al., 2007). Therefore, for moral
and economic reasons we should concentrate on reducing the level of poverty
among children.

Race and Poverty In 2007, the median income for white households was $54,920
compared with the median income of $33,916 for black families and $38,679 for
Hispanic families (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008). Thirty-six percent of
whites earned $75,000 or more compared to 18 percent of blacks and 20 percent
of Hispanics. The significantly higher earnings of white families can be traced back
in part to historical racism and discrimination. African Americans, who have long
been excluded from earning opportunities—first by hundreds of years of slavery
and then by deliberate policies of exclusion—have experienced a legacy of income
disparity. Many Hispanic people, who have come to the United States as undocu-
mented persons unable to speak English, have been placed in a secondary class of
employment, low-paying jobs that do not require English or legal documentation.
Consider the data in Box 8.6.
Possibly the most impoverished people in the United States are Native Americans.
The indigenous people have been systematically moved or destroyed since the time of
the colonization of America by white Europeans. Today most Native Americans live
Poverty and Economic Inequality 181


2007 Poverty by Race White African American Latino

All persons 8.2% 24.5% 21.5%

Families below poverty 6.0% 23.8% 20.6%
Female-headed families below 21.4% 39.7% 39.6%
Children below poverty 10.1% 34.5% 28.6%
Source: DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008

on reservations, which are some of the most concentrated areas of poverty in the
United States. For example, almost 50 percent of the Navaho Nation lives in poverty
and about 26 percent of all American Indian and Alaska natives live in poverty (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2007).
Asian immigrants to the United States have done better economically than
others. However, their experiences have also been hampered by racism and dis-
crimination. Poverty rates for Asian Americans, though better than for other
groups, are still higher than those of white Americans. Poverty varies by nation of
origin, with very high rates among some Asian groups, particularly those who
came as refugees (Segal, Kilty, & Kim, 2002).

Homeless People Possibly the most severe form of poverty is to be homeless,

living without a permanent residence. Estimates of the number of people who are
homeless vary widely. Because the nature of homelessness is transiency and imper-
manent housing, finding and counting people who are homeless becomes difficult.
Many estimates are based on the numbers of people who use shelters and other
services designed for people who are homeless. Although this may document the
provision of services, it does not account for people who do not use services or
are temporarily living with friends or family members but lack a permanent place
of their own.
One of the biggest contributors to homelessness in this country is the lack of
affordable housing. Many poor individuals and some families relied on rental of sin-
gle rooms, often in former hotels that lacked kitchen facilities. These rooms, com-
monly referred to as single room occupancies (SROs), offered affordable housing,
albeit not ideal. However, due to urban development and efforts to “clean up” ur-
ban centers, one million SROs disappeared between 1960 and the mid-1980s (U.S.
General Accounting Office, 1992). During the 1990s, the number of affordable
apartments decreased by almost 25 percent. In 1991, there were 47 affordable rental
units per every 100 low-income families, but in 1997, only 36 (U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development, 2000). The decline in affordable housing greatly
affected low-income workers and has contributed to the increase in the numbers of
homeless people. Although difficult to assess, studies suggest that approximately one
182 Chapter 8

percent of the U.S. population experiences homelessness each year, which is about
3.5 million people (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2007). These numbers
represent some of the poorest members of our society, and it is likely that almost
40 percent of them are children.
Each year the U.S. Conference of Mayors (2008) surveys major cities to assess
the extent of homelessness in America. In 2008, 83 percent of the cities reported an
increase in homelessness. As a consequence of economic conditions, 63 percent re-
ported an increase in homelessness due to the home foreclosure crisis. Ninety-five
percent reported increases in requests for emergency food assistance, and almost
all the cities expected the demand for food assistance to increase in 2009. Another
study found that more than three fourths of emergency shelters turn people away
because they lack enough space (National Student Campaign Against Hunger and
Homelessness, 2005). The economic crisis and increase in job losses will contribute
to the growing number of people who find themselves homeless, with significant
numbers of children among them. The issue of homelessness is becoming a reemer-
ging policy concern.


The cause of poverty has probably been the subject of debate for as long as there
have been people who are poor. If we could easily determine the cause of poverty,
we could effectively respond to it. However, values and beliefs play a role in how
we view poverty and, consequently, what we view as the underlying reasons for
poverty in our society. Chapter 3 discussed the ideas of the culture of poverty and
blaming the victim. These two perspectives take a personal or individual view of
the cause of poverty. A structural perspective views poverty as a consequence of
our economic, social, and political systems. And within these two categories are nu-
merous theories to explain the cause of poverty. Some of the leading theories cited
to explain poverty include the following (Jennings, 1999):
Human capital: People are poor because they lack education, training, or job
Unfortunate circumstances: Unforeseen mishaps greatly disadvantage some
people and lead to impoverishment.
Macroeconomics: Shifts in the employment sector have created permanent low-
wage jobs that do not allow for advancement.
Racism, discrimination, and segregation: People are excluded from the main-
stream economic system through prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.
Dependency: People become accustomed to receiving assistance and have no
desire to work.
Lack of political power: Some groups are excluded from policy-making and,
without wealth and privilege, these groups continue to be excluded.
The difficulty in determining the cause of poverty is that for every individual or
family, there could be one or several of the listed reasons for economic distress.
Some of the reasons are individual and some are social, and usually there is a com-
bination of these forces. The difficulty in creating social policies that respond to
Poverty and Economic Inequality 183

poverty is in part because of the complexity of factors that contribute to it but also
because of the values and beliefs that surround our views of people who are poor.
The conflicting beliefs about poverty and the cause of it have led to a patchwork of
social welfare policies and programs.


Aiding those in need is not new. As discussed in Chapter 2, assistance for the poor
dates back to colonial times. The major social services for people who are poor are
cash assistance and in-kind benefits. Cash assistance has been most controversial
because of a reluctance to give people money without controlling how it is spent.
In-kind programs such as medical care and food coupons have received more pub-
lic support.


Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Variations of local public
assistance based on the Elizabethan Poor Laws dominated the public response to
poverty among women and children until the 1900s. The first federal effort came
in 1920, with passage of the Mother’s Aid law. This program was narrow in
scope. Prompted by the economic devastation of the Great Depression, Mother’s
Aid was expanded to become the Aid to Dependent Children program (ADC) and
was passed as Title IV of the Social Security Act in 1935. ADC was viewed as a
temporary program to support poor widows and their children. The original plan
was that after social insurance became established, women and children who lost
working husbands and fathers would be covered by the worker’s social insurance
as dependents of the deceased worker. They would not need ADC. Additionally,
ADC was supported because single mothers and their children were considered a
deserving group, and “by devoting themselves to mothering, the female recipients
were performing what God, nature, and society intended women to do and doing
so, moreover, under difficult circumstances” (Gordon, 2001, p. 17).
However, rather than serve as a temporary program, the demand for ADC ex-
panded and it took on the status of a permanent program. In 1962 it was trans-
formed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to include the single
parent, and several years after that it was expanded to include two-parent families if
the main earner became unemployed. As the program became further entrenched in
the social welfare system, additional efforts to change the program were launched.
Major revisions were enacted into law in 1988 under the Family Support Act,
and then in 1996 the program was restructured under the Personal Responsibility
and Work Opportunities Act (PRWORA). The impetus behind PRWORA stemmed
from changing demographics and perceptions of AFDC. The composition of fami-
lies had shifted since the inception of the program. Women receiving AFDC were
no longer predominantly widows but rather were mostly single women, either
divorced or never married. At the same time, more women were entering the labor
market, and the public perception grew that poor women were allowed to stay
at home and receive a government check while other women were forced for
184 Chapter 8

economic reasons to work and not stay at home with their children. Statistics
demonstrate that in some ways this perception was true, and in other ways it was
not. Indeed more women had entered the labor market and were working outside
the home. From 1970 to 2006, the percentage of women in the labor force grew
from 43.3 percent to 59.4 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). Indeed, more
women were working outside the home. Some of those working women were also
recipients of AFDC, or relied on AFDC because they were between jobs or had ex-
perienced a major life change, such as divorce. During the 1990s, 72 percent of
families that received cash assistance had a parent who worked at least part of the
year (Tenny & Zahradnik, 2001).
Although the public perception was that women on public assistance “had it
made” because they were receiving a check from the government for doing nothing
but stay at home, the reality was different, as discussed in the critical policy analy-
sis in Chapter 6. Most AFDC recipients were in and out of the labor force. Almost
all female recipients were single mothers with young children facing barriers to
working full-time and raising small children. Prior to passage of PRWORA, the
average AFDC family consisted of one adult and two children under the age of
7 years who were receiving about $380 a month for three years or less (Adminis-
tration for Children and Families, 1995). This amounted to about $2.20 an hour
if considered from a full-time working role. Although the amount of AFDC was
critical to families, it was not a large sum of money, and it went to the most vul-
nerable families, those with a single parent and young children with no savings or
steady employment. By 1999, although the total numbers of recipients had de-
clined, the characteristics had remained similar. The average TANF family con-
sisted of one adult and two children whose average age was 7.8 years, who were
receiving about $360 a month (Administration for Children and Families, 2000).
For 61 years, since its inception, AFDC had been an entitlement program. Any
family who was eligible received benefits for as long as their eligibility was main-
tained. Furthermore, the federal government provided states with a portion of the
funding for AFDC. With increased participation, federal spending grew. PRWORA
changed the program in major ways. AFDC was replaced with Temporary Assis-
tance for Needy Families (TANF), which was not an entitlement program but
rather a time-limited, no-guarantee program. The federal funding changed to an
annual block grant. Public assistance for poor families was no longer a given but
rather a conditional, time-limited support.
TANF provides temporary cash assistance and work opportunities for partici-
pants. Nearly all recipients must work within 2 years of receipt. The provisions of
the law required each state to have 40 percent of the families either working or off
the program by 2000, and 50 percent by 2002. The work requirements include
30 hours a week for single parents. The work can be unsubsidized or subsidized,
on-the-job training, community service, up to 12 months of vocational training, or
child care for other parents participating in community service. What is not al-
lowed any longer is staying at home with one’s own child, unless that child is un-
der one year of age (Administration for Children and Families, 2004). If states
could demonstrate cuts in their caseloads, they were exempt from the work partici-
pation rules and quotas. The result was that after ten years, only about one third of
TANF recipients worked at least 30 hours a week (Benson, 2007).
Poverty and Economic Inequality 185

In 2005, TANF was reauthorized under the Deficit Reduction Act. This legisla-
tion tightened the work requirements by further limiting what activities and which
recipients states can count toward work participation. For example, the law now
requires states to count as eligible to work, people who are waiting to qualify for
disability and denies work credit for students studying at four-year colleges. If
states do not meet these new stricter rules, they will lose federal funding through
penalties (Parrott & Sherman, 2006).
Families cannot spend more than a lifetime total of five years on TANF. States
can make that time limit even shorter or can exempt up to 20 percent of the case-
load from the five-year time limit. After the five years, states may continue assis-
tance but will not receive federal support to do so. As part of TANF, families can
receive child care services and health care coverage through Medicaid. Child sup-
port enforcement is also a key provision of TANF.
Since its inception, TANF has reached its goal of decreasing the numbers of
families receiving assistance. In 1996, 4.4 million families with 12.3 million partici-
pants received cash assistance under AFDC; by 2005, those numbers had dropped
to 2.1 million families with 5.1 million recipients receiving assistance under TANF
(Administration for Children and Families, 2004; Department of Health and Hu-
man Services, 2007). Research on mothers of young children who were eligible for
TANF found that many were disconnected from the welfare system. Forty-five per-
cent were not receiving TANF, and 16 percent had left voluntarily or because their
time limits had run out or they had received sanctions. Both those receiving TANF
benefits and those not receiving benefits were not doing well. They were experienc-
ing high levels of economic hardship, eviction, hunger, and poor health (Center for
Research on Child Wellbeing, 2003). The drop in TANF participation seems to be
related to regulation changes and time limits, not eligibility or number of people in
need. In the 1990s, 80 percent of families who were eligible received AFDC, com-
pared to 48 percent of eligible families under TANF (Parrott & Sherman, 2006).
Much of the caseload decline is due to administration of the program, not a reduc-
tion in poverty or economic need. It would seem that the changes in approach from
AFDC to TANF, and a growing economy helped to bring down the number of re-
cipients. The data raise this question: Are people better off with TANF, or is it only
the government that benefits because caseloads are reduced and less has to be spent
on public assistance?
Research findings on those who left TANF are mixed. Although more women
are leaving and finding work, they do not seem to be better off. The majority of
women who leave TANF have full-time jobs that pay $7 to $8 an hour (Acs &
Loprest, 2004; Bazelon, 2002; Parrott & Sherman, 2006). Even with transitional
support, eventually these women lose health care coverage from Medicaid and
child care assistance. Only about one third of those who work after leaving TANF
have employer-sponsored health insurance (Loprest, 2003). Touting the success of
TANF in getting adult recipients into the work force, the Administration for Chil-
dren and Families (2003) reported that average monthly earnings had risen to
$686 in 2001. Although this was an improvement over previous years, these wages
amounted to an average of $8,232 a year for a family of typically one adult and
two children. Therefore, even though more TANF adults were working, their in-
comes still left them below the poverty line. The result of TANF seems to be that
186 Chapter 8

the decrease in caseload numbers is leading to an increase in the numbers of house-

holds headed by single women among the working poor.
In fact, among families with income below the poverty threshold, almost half
(48 percent) received family income from earnings and only 31 percent of their to-
tal family income was from any means-tested programs, including TANF, SSI (dis-
cussed next) and food stamps (Department of Health and Human Services, 2007).
Most telling in regard to the impact of TANF and welfare reform is the coverage
of poor children. From 1988 until 1996, 58–62 percent of children living in pov-
erty received AFDC. After the 1996 legislation, that portion dropped. By 2003,
only 31 percent of poor children received TANF (Parrott & Sherman, 2006) and
calculations for 2005 reveal that portion dropped further to less than 30 percent
(author calculations based on Department of Health and Human Services, 2007
data). The “success” of TANF caseload reductions appears to rest on tighter
eligibility and administrative restrictions so that less of the poor receive any assis-
tance while the population of people who are poor has remained rather constant.
The unanswered question is, what have poor people who previously would have
received cash assistance been doing to survive now that eligibility has been severely
reduced? Research is needed to answer this question and explain how poor families
have been managing with less since welfare reform.

Supplemental Security Income The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program

provides cash assistance to any person who is age 65 years or older, is blind, or has
a disability and whose income falls below the poverty line. Poor children with dis-
abilities are also covered under SSI. This federal program is an important support
for low-income families, particularly those affected by disabilities. This may be either
a disabled adult who cannot work or a disabled child who requires extra care. SSI is
federally administered under the Social Security Administration, as opposed to
TANF, which is state run as a partnership with the federal government. In 2007,
7.2 million people received SSI benefits, with an average monthly amount of $455
(Social Security Administration, 2008). For children under 18 years, the average
monthly benefit was higher, at $542. About 15 percent of SSI recipients are children
and 28 percent are 65 years of age or older. SSI is a significant antipoverty program
for the elderly, covering from 55–60 percent of all elderly poor over the past five
years (Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). The support from SSI for
poor families with a child who has a disability has been extremely vital to creating a
financial safety net for these families. SSI is also discussed in Chapter 12.

Earned Income Tax Credit The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a federal
program designed to lift families with full-time year-round workers above poverty le-
vels. The program was created in 1975 for families with dependent children in which
one or more family members work. Only wage earners qualify for this program. At
certain income levels, the family qualifies to receive an income tax credit. This pro-
gram is handled directly through the tax process, using income tax returns as the
forms for calculating the credit. This program bypasses eligibility workers and wel-
fare bureaucracies because it ties into the already existing income tax system. In
2003, one out of every six people filing federal income tax returns claimed the
EITC, that is, more than 22 million families and individuals (Greenstein, 2005). In
Poverty and Economic Inequality 187

the tax year of 2007, qualifying families with 2 or more children could receive up to
$4,716 and families with one child could receive up to $2,853 (Center for Policy Al-
ternatives, 2007). The program calculates a credit based on income and family size,
and if it exceeds the total tax owed, the difference is paid to the family as a refund.
Two examples highlight how the EITC works:
Consider a family of four with a full-time year-round worker earning $6.75 per hour.
This results in an annual income of $14,040. This family is entitled to $4,716 in EITC.
After subtracting the employee’s portion of payroll taxes and allowing for a child care
credit, the family would be left with cash income of $17,682. While this is a significant
benefit, it would still leave the family below the poverty threshold by more than
Now consider a single parent with one child. The parent works nearly full-time, 48
weeks at 38 hours, at the 2009 minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. This family’s annual
income is $13,224, resulting in an EITC of $2,853. After payroll taxes, the family is
left with $15,065, which is more than $1,065 above the poverty threshold.
(EITC credit calculated on Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Earned Income tax
Credit Estimator, available at
Although in both these cases the families benefited from the cash support of
the EITC, for the larger family it was not enough to lift them from poverty, but sig-
nificant for the single parent family. Three fourths of EITC benefits go to families
with adjusted gross incomes between $5,000 and $20,000 a year (Greenstein,
2005). The program is a critical support for low-income families lifting millions
out of poverty. However, advocates argue that the EITC needs to be raised even
further and also that wages, which are far too low, need to be increased.

Minimum Wage The most productive way that wages can be increased is through
raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage is the federally mandated lowest
hourly wage that employers may legally pay their workers. Minimum wage is not
typically thought of as a poverty program but rather as an employment policy. As
such, it is discussed in more detail in Chapter 9. Its place in our economic and labor
systems is also discussed. However, wages are crucial to low-income workers, so it is
important to consider the impact of a minimum wage for low-income earners. In
2006, the minimum wage stood at $5.15 per hour. After years of legislative at-
tempts, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates the minimum wage, was
amended. The minimum wage was slated to gradually rise from $5.15 to $5.85 in
2007, $6.55 in 2008, and $7.25 in 2009. Under the minimum wage of $7.25 per
hour, at 40 hours a week, for 52 weeks a year, after payroll tax, a worker earns
$13,926. Comparing this amount to the chart in Box 8.3, this would lift only one
person above the poverty threshold. Raising the minimum wage by two more dollars
would provide almost $4,000 more in income. Although a family would still have
difficulty on this salary, at least it would begin to match what we officially identify
as poverty. A family of four would need more than $10 per hour wage to match
the poverty threshold for 2008. It is a policy discrepancy that the minimum wage—
the hourly wage that is thought to be the lowest level—is not even enough to keep
people out of the official level of poverty. And as previously discussed, that poverty
threshold is already unrealistically low. The minimum wage and the EITC are dis-
cussed in more detail in the next chapter.
188 Chapter 8

In spite of those limitations, the EITC and the minimum wage have combined
to improve economic conditions for the working poor. From 1989 to 1997, expan-
sions in both policies raised the amount of earnings for workers. For a single work-
ing mother with one child, earnings (after inflation) increased almost 27 percent,
and for the same worker with two children, the increase in earnings was almost
42 percent (Blank, 2000). In 2005, about 4.4 million people were removed from
poverty as a result of the federal EITC (Greenstein, 2005). Although working fami-
lies are still in poverty or very near poverty, without these economic policy inter-
ventions, their situations would be far worse.
Other cash assistance programs, falling primarily under social insurance or fed-
eral tax exemptions, help to keep some people from falling into poverty. This has
been especially true for the elderly over the past 25 years. Social insurance, unem-
ployment insurance, workers compensation, and survivors and disability insurance
are examples of other cash assistance programs. However, unlike those discussed
here, they do not require poverty as a prerequisite for eligibility. Therefore, these
programs are discussed in greater detail in other chapters. It is important to re-
member that although they are not regarded as antipoverty programs, they play
an important part in keeping people out of poverty.


Food Stamps/ Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program Social welfare
policies for food distribution, developed as part of the New Deal, were originally
designed to deal with a surplus of agricultural commodities. Support for govern-
ment involvement in the purchase of food came from agricultural groups as a way
to guarantee price support. With government subsidies through food distribution
programs, people were able to purchase needed foods at prevailing prices even
with overproduction and during economic depression. The agricultural support of
surplus food distribution programs resulted in their administration by the Depart-
ment of Agriculture. Legislative changes to government food distribution programs
in later years shifted the emphasis to an antipoverty program (Finegold, 1988).
In response to the War on Poverty and the push for antipoverty programs, the
Food Stamp program was enacted in 1964 as a way to assist poor individuals and
families in purchasing food. The program was designed as a support, not to supply
a family with all the food it needs. To reflect this, in 2008 the name was officially
changed from the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition and Assis-
tance Program (SNAP). The benefits are based on a low-cost food plan known as
the Thrifty Food Plan, which averages about $1 per person per meal (Jenkins,
2008). Today the program distributes coupons or credit cards with benefits allo-
cated monthly to those who fall below a federally determined level of need. This
system allows recipients the discretion to choose what food items they want to
buy. Benefits may not be used for alcoholic beverages, tobacco, paper products,
diapers, personal care products, or ready-to-eat foods. The program is administered
through the Department of Agriculture, with local public aid offices responsible for
determining eligibility and allotment of benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition and
Assistance Program is funded from federal general revenues for the full value of
the recipient’s benefits, with administrative costs shared by the states and federal
Poverty and Economic Inequality 189

government. It is the largest food assistance program in the country and reaches
more people over the course of a year than does any other public assistance pro-
gram. In 2008, 28.4 million recipients received SNAP benefits, for an average
monthly amount of $101.53 (Food and Nutrition Service, 2008). The anti-poverty
impact of the program is significant. Ninety-six percent of children in poverty partic-
ipated in the program, and almost 70 percent of all poor people received some
amount of Food Stamp support (Department of Health and Human Services, 2007).

Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children The Supple-
mental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a federal pro-
gram designed to provide nutrition and health assistance to pregnant and
postpartum women, infants, and children up to the age of 5 years. To be eligible,
women and their children must be at nutritional risk and have an income below
the standards consistent with measuring need in the state. Administered by the De-
partment of Agriculture and distributed through local clinics, the program provides
participants with vouchers that can be redeemed for nutritional foods such as milk
and eggs. Participants also qualify to receive nutrition education and health ser-
vices aimed at improving the health of newborn babies and young children.

Public Housing A number of housing programs are administered by federal,

state, and local governments. Almost all are funded with federal money through
the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Low-rent public
housing projects, originally developed under 1937 legislation, are federally funded
programs managed and administered by local Public Housing Authorities. Fami-
lies, elderly persons, and people with disabilities usually qualify if their income is
below a certain point, typically less than 50 percent of the median income for the
area. Rental charges, set by the federal government, are about 30 percent of the re-
cipient’s monthly after-tax income.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development also provides rental as-
sistance to poor families. Commonly referred to as the Section 8 housing program,
the federal government provides rental certificates and vouchers that can be used to
subsidize the lease of a privately owned rental unit. Participants pay 30 percent of
their income toward rent, and a government voucher pays the rest. For a unit to
qualify, its monthly rent cannot exceed a specific amount set by the government.
Since the late 1980s, the federal government has developed additional housing
support programs specifically for people who are homeless. Passage of the Stewart
B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-77) was the first compre-
hensive federal effort to aid people who are homeless. It was expanded over the
years and renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 2000 to re-
flect the passing of another strong legislative supporter of the program. The hous-
ing programs covered by the legislation include grants and funds for emergency
shelter and monies to support transitional and permanent housing.
Clearly, a comprehensive and unified institutional approach to services for the
poor is lacking in this country. There can be both positives and negatives to our re-
sidual approach. On the positive side, local administration can allow programs to
be tailored to the unique needs of each community. Federal guidelines can create
national minimums so that each citizen is entitled to an equal baseline of services.
190 Chapter 8

Federal funding can equalize the differing financial means of states, thereby not pe-
nalizing poorer states and their residents. However, there are risks with such an ap-
proach. On the negative side, a piecemeal approach can leave gaps in services and
a lack of coordination, leaving many without needed assistance. Funding can be in-
adequate because of the reluctance by states to contribute, relying only on federal
funds instead. The reliance on a residual approach results in programs that are of-
ten inadequate in coverage, funding, and support services. Emphasis is placed on
responding to poverty once it has occurred. Little is done preventively to address
the factors that might lead to poverty in the first place.


In the beginning of this chapter, the concept of relative poverty was discussed. Al-
though all assistance programs and statistical measures use absolute levels of pov-
erty, many people experience relative poverty. More Americans are feeling
economically squeezed. Seventy-nine percent of respondents in a recent annual na-
tional survey found it more difficult for people in the middle class to maintain their
standard of living than in previous years (Pew Research Center, 2008). A majority
felt stuck or falling backwards, the most downbeat assessment in almost 50 years
of polling. In real economic terms, as of 2007, median household income had not
returned to its 1999 level, making this the longest downturn for middle class
earners (DeNavas, Proctor, & Smith, 2008). It seems that middle-income families
have kept up over the years through women, particularly wives, entering the paid
labor market (Mishel, Bernstein, & Allegretto, 2007). Losses in the housing and
financial markets and growing numbers of foreclosures are adding to the distress
felt by both those at the bottom and those in the middle.
Today, poverty, low incomes, and economic stress have taken broader mean-
ings. Those people who identify in the middle are feeling poorer and this has an
impact on how we approach poverty and government intervention. It may draw at-
tention to the growing economic need for support. For the first time in many years,
in 2008 Congress addressed its “moral responsibility to meet the needs of those
persons, groups and communities that are impoverished, disadvantaged or other-
wise in poverty” through passage of a House Concurrent Resolution (H. Con.
Res. 198, 110th Congress, 2nd Session). While mostly symbolic, it may lead to
more concrete action on addressing poverty in the United States.


Values and beliefs vary greatly and opinions are strong when it comes to discus-
sions of poverty. Research on public opinion suggests that:
Most Americans see welfare as a necessary and desirable function of government. That
is not to say, however, that Americans are particularly happy with the current welfare
system. But the source of their unhappiness, indeed the focus of considerable public
anger and resentment, is not the principle of government support for the needy,
but the perception that most people currently receiving welfare are undeserving.
(Gilens, 1999, p. 2)
Poverty and Economic Inequality 191

In recent years, the belief in government responsibility for the poor has grown.
Sixty-nine percent feel that “the government should take care of people who
can’t care for themselves,” up from 57 percent in 1994, and 54 percent fell
that “the government should help more needy people even if the debt increases,”
which is up from 41 percent in 1994 (Pew Research Center, 2007). Yet people
also feel that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance,”
with 69 percent agreeing. However, this was a significant drop from 1994 when
85 percent felt poor people were too dependent.
Thus, in principle, Americans believe that government should play a role in
helping people and addressing poverty. Where their support declines is in the belief
that those who actually receive assistance are not deserving of that support. “In
large measure, Americans hate welfare because they view it as a program that re-
wards the undeserving poor” (Gilens, 1999, p. 3). Why?
Examination of poverty in American society suggests that it is not a case of dis-
agreement between people with a value of caring for the poor and people who lack
that value. Nor is it as simple as recognition that there are people in need as op-
posed to lack of recognition. What really distinguishes how a person feels about
poverty in America has to do with a person’s beliefs. And the conflict in dealing
with poverty therefore rests in the conflict between competing beliefs.


Most Americans support the idea of helping people in need, as long as that person
is worthy of that help. They must be seen as trying hard, willing to work if given
the chance, and grateful for any and all opportunities. The values of deserving and
undeserving, dating back to the colonial period (1700s), are significant today in
discussions of poverty. The early colonial laws considered widows, orphans, elderly
people, and people with a physical disability as worthy of assistance. The charac-
teristic they shared was that they were in need through circumstances beyond their
control. That view persists today. In political speeches given in the House of Repre-
sentatives hours before the approval of the welfare reform legislation in 1996, the
overriding concern of lawmakers was self-sufficiency and serving the truly needy
(Segal & Kilty, 2003). If a person is perceived as able to work but still poor, then
the belief is that the person is not worthy of assistance. This value of distinguishing
between deserving and undeserving may seem clear and logical, and therefore a
reasonable way to distinguish who should receive welfare and who should not.
However, other conflicting beliefs influence how we perceive deservedness.


At first, when we meet a person who looks healthy and is receiving government as-
sistance, we question why the person is not working. It is difficult not to immedi-
ately compare our own efforts at holding a job and earning enough to support
ourselves and our families with the fact that this person is getting assistance with-
out working. Feelings of unfairness come to us, and we consider the person to be
undeserving. However, oftentimes, what is lacking in understanding poverty in
192 Chapter 8

America is the impact of our economic, social, and political systems on access and
opportunity. Racism limits people’s opportunities. Women are treated differently
than men. Companies find it cheaper to close plants and move, leaving hundreds
of workers without jobs, and many do not have skills to quickly change to another
job. Education is not equally available at high levels, so some people at a young
age do not learn the skills that would help them get jobs. Therefore, we must ques-
tion whether these are instances of personal failure or whether there are flaws in our
social interactions, economic policies, or educational systems. This raises the next
question: Who is responsible for people’s well-being, each individual or society?


How much responsibility for having enough to eat, a safe place to live, and an ed-
ucation should be placed on the individual, and how much on society? If we view
poverty as the result of a person’s unwillingness to work hard enough or mistakes
the person has made in his or her life, then we are most likely going to focus on in-
dividual responsibility. If we view poverty as a consequence of social conditions,
then we are most likely going to call for public policies and programs that address
poverty through government and societal efforts. For some of us, the value of so-
cial responsibility is so strong that it may not matter who is at “fault” for poverty,
the individual or society. Rather, our responsibility to others supersedes all, and
therefore we must take care of all people, regardless of the cause of their need.


One characteristic that seems to pervade American society is the tendency to be
more comfortable and more inclined to help people we know, or feel we know,
rather than help strangers. With the class differences in American society, people
with wealth, or even comfortable means, rarely if ever have contact with people
who are poor. What little contact they have is typically not on a personal level but
rather through the media or hierarchical relationships where a person of a lower
class serves or works for a person of a higher class. Those with means are served
in restaurants or have their lawns and homes cared for by those who are barely
making ends meet.


Poverty evokes a lot of emotions, including feelings of sadness and pity. These feel-
ings tend to fall under sympathy. We feel how unfortunate poor people are and
how difficult their lives might be. But we do not relate to them as if they are the
same kind of people that we are but without financial means. Being empathic
would mean that we realize that poverty could happen to any one of us and, there-
fore, it is not the individual’s fault alone. Outside circumstances contribute to pov-
erty, and if we do not address those outside circumstances, we too could someday
face being poor. However, this view is rarely held by those who make the decisions
regarding poverty-related policies. Consider Box 8.7 and notice how very different
those who receive public assistance are from those who vote on the policies that
Poverty and Economic Inequality 193

regulate those programs. Viewing poverty from a sympathetic perspective typically

means addressing it as an individual problem. When looking at it from an em-
pathic viewpoint, the desire is to change the external factors that contribute to


Poverty is not a new phenomenon in this country, but it continues to evoke strong
responses from policy makers and the public. The debate surrounding what to do
about poverty reflects the dilemma of reconciling the level of wealth in the United
States with the persistence of poverty among millions of people. “In just a little
over two centuries the United States went from being a society born of revolution
and touched by egalitarianism to being the country with the industrial world’s big-
gest fortunes and its largest rich-poor gap” (Phillips, 2002, p. xviii).
Recognition that the structure of our economic system results in poverty de-
mands large-scale changes in our market and labor systems. If one holds that the
individual is responsible for his or her poverty, then the emphasis is on changing
peoples’ behaviors. Thus far in American history, neither approach has been imple-
mented effectively. The current trend toward holding individuals completely re-
sponsible for their economic conditions means that millions of people, particularly
children, will lack proper shelter, sufficient nutrition, adequate education, or access
to opportunities. Over time, that approach guarantees the perpetuation of poverty
and its consequences in this country.


How similar are the lives of the people who make

policy decisions to the lives of people who are
subject to those decisions?
Comparison of TANF Adult Recipients and Members of Congress
TANF Adults Members of Congress

Average age 31 years 55 years

Female: 90% 14.4%
White 31.6% 87.1%
Black 38.3% 6.9%
Hispanic 24.9% 4.5%
More than a high school education 3.3% 92.7%
Employment rate 25.3% 100%
Millionaires 0 29.2%
Source: Segal, 2006.
194 Chapter 8

Key Terms
absolute poverty homeless Earned Income Tax Supplemental Food
relative poverty Temporary Assistance Credit (EITC) Program for Women,
for Needy Families minimum wage Infants, and Children
poverty threshold
poverty guidelines Food Stamp
Supplemental Security Section 8 housing
feminization of poverty Supplemental Nutrition
Income (SSI) and Assistance Pro-
juvenilization of
gram (SNAP)

Questions for Discussion

1. How much is enough for a person to live on 4. Define the term working poor. Explain how
adequately? it is possible for a person to work and still be
2. Define basic needs. Is a telephone a neces- poor. Does this seem fair? Why or why not?
sity? What if you have young children? Is 5. Describe the term middle class. What is the
health insurance a necessity? What kind of difference between lower and middle class?
shelter is sufficient? How would you define working class, and
3. What is the impact of poverty on a person’s where does that group fit in?
life? How do you think poverty affects peo-
ple? How does poverty affect our society?

1. Find the local public assistance office in your 3. Call a local public assistance office and
community. Spend some time sitting in the identify yourself as a student. Ask if you
waiting room. What does it look like? How could get a copy of an application for TANF
many people are there? Can you find infor- or food assistance. What information does
mation on the programs? How was this the application require? Does it seem exten-
waiting room different or the same as other sive or minimal? Is it like other applications
public offices or private offices, such as you have filled out? Why or why not?
doctors’ or driver registration offices? After 4. For one month, record all your living ex-
you leave, write down your observations penses. How much is your monthly budget?
and impressions. Compare your experience What percentage do you spend on food? On
with your classmates’ experiences. housing? How does your budget compare
2. Apply for an entry-level job at a local busi- with the poverty line?
ness. How much does the job pay? How 5. Go online to the Internal Revenue Service
does it compare to the poverty level? Does it web site,, and find out what the in-
include health care coverage? What about come criteria are for the Earned Income Tax
other benefits, such as sick leave or vaca- Credit program. What income levels qualify,
tions? Are there other costs involved, such as and what are the benefits?
transportation or uniforms? Could you care
for children with the schedule of this job?
Poverty and Economic Inequality 195

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198 Chapter 9

Current social welfare policies and programs have been shaped by both social
factors and economic conditions. Social forces are central to the development of
social welfare policy, but changes in the economic system have also played a cru-
cial role in influencing public policy responses in the United States. The history
outlined in Chapter 2 demonstrates numerous instances when economic change
precipitated policy change. The best example was the impact of the Great Depres-
sion on the social welfare system: The Social Security Act was passed in response
to the most significant economic downturn in history. Chapter 7 discussed how
this legislation permanently altered the role of government in aiding individual
economic well-being.
Although economic trends play a critical role in the development of social wel-
fare policies, the role is often overlooked by those who provide direct human ser-
vices. Social work and economics are often viewed as unrelated disciplines. Social
workers are often not familiar with the subject of economics. The realm of eco-
nomics seems to be technical and rigid to the social service provider, who is trained
in human behavior.
Economics can be described as “the science of the production and distribution
of wealth” (Oxford American Dictionary, 1999). Economics is viewed as a science,
whereas social work is more often viewed as an art:
A rigorous intellectual approach associated with scientific thinking is resisted . . . It
[rigorous intellectual assessment] is perceived on the one hand as a threat to the
uniqueness of the individual. On the other hand, since it seems cold and impersonal,
it is perceived as a threat to the skill of the social worker, to the sensitivity and the
artistic element that are regarded as so important in social work. (Bartlett, 1970, p. 38)

The main difference between social work and economics appears to be the differ-
ence between an art and a technical science, but there are significant ideological
differences between the two disciplines as well.


There are three fundamental ideological differences between social work and eco-
nomics. The first is the emphasis placed on competition for resources. The founda-
tion of economics is the competitive marketplace, in which those who have the
most to offer can outbid all others. Social welfare services are designed to minimize
the extremes of competitive distribution. The second difference is the emphasis on
cost/benefit analysis. Economics is concerned with finding the least expensive way
to produce the greatest results. Social welfare workers are concerned with the best
ways of helping people cope or adapt and with methods of producing environmen-
tal change. The cost of these “products” is not the ultimate concern, and the most
effective policies are often not the least expensive alternatives. The third difference
is the use of mathematical calculations and concrete criteria to explain social and
human behaviors in economics as opposed to the use of case studies and practical
experience to guide analyses of behavior in social work. These differences can lead
to conflict between the ideologies of economics and social work.
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 199

Social workers tend to believe that economists are predominantly interested in find-
ing the most efficient system of transfer for the marketplace (Page, 1977). Efficient
transfer of resources minimizes social welfare outlays and stresses a competitive
economic model. Those who possess sufficient means are able to acquire what
they need and, conversely, those with minimal resources are left with very little.
The by-products of such competition are the economically deprived groups who
lack the means to actively participate in the marketplace.
An unrestricted competitive marketplace may function economically from a
theoretical standpoint, but in reality there are social repercussions. If all variables
related to employment were relatively equal, such as educational opportunity and
access to jobs, and if impediments such as racism, sexism, and other forms of dis-
crimination were eliminated, then open competition would create a stable econ-
omy. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Structural unemployment, beyond the reach of macroeconomic demand policies, afflicts
disproportionately certain vulnerable demographic groups, teenagers, young adults,
minorities. Labor markets are very imperfectly competitive. The interests of unem-
ployed outsiders are insufficiently represented. . . . (Tobin, 1986, p. 30)

An outgrowth of the competitive nature of the marketplace is the emphasis on com-
paring the cost of a product with the benefits it generates. Marketplace success is
achieved when a product makes more money than the cost of the process required
to produce it. In social welfare services, the outcome is often intangible or immeasur-
able. Although the dollars spent for a given program can be tallied, the quantifiable
dollar benefit of a nutrition program for infants, mental health services for suicidal
clients, or literacy tutoring for unemployed adults is impossible to calculate.
Furthermore, emphasizing costs versus benefits ignores social responsibility and
conscience. Social work ideology stresses empowerment, self-determination, and
advocacy regardless of the potential for profitable return. Cost/benefit concerns of-
ten do not take human needs into account. Weighing costs against benefits is an
aggregate function that does not recognize the uniqueness of each person.
For example, Charles Murray (1984) in his book Losing Ground, an indict-
ment of government involvement in social welfare, used the analysis of cost versus
benefit to support his argument against social welfare spending. Murray’s point
was that if the amount spent on antipoverty measures over the previous 30 years
had been effective, poverty would no longer exist. Because poverty continues to ex-
ist, he concluded that there is no reason to continue spending money on social wel-
fare services. Although there are numerous fallacies in Murray’s logic (as well as
erroneous calculations), the issue here is that Murray looked at poverty as simply
a matter of cost versus benefit. There is no acknowledgment of inequality of oppor-
tunity, discrimination, or the human experience of poverty anywhere in Murray’s
book. Murray also ignores the possibility that if antipoverty measures had not
been available, poverty in this country would be worse.
200 Chapter 9

Many aspects of economics are based on mathematical concepts and computations.
Mathematics is often an intimidating subject and alien to human service providers.
Furthermore, mathematical calculations cannot measure or quantify the uniqueness
of each individual. Human variability is a key element for social work professionals
and clients. In order to capture the uniqueness of individuals, social workers exam-
ine clients on a case-by-case basis. Details of a person’s individual history and cur-
rent social and emotional conditions are used to choose appropriate interventions.
This emphasis on the qualitative aspects of people’s lives seems to conflict with the
quantitative mathematical assessment techniques used by economists.
Regardless of the difficulties in quantifying social concerns, elected officials and
policy analysts tend to regard mathematical calculations as a stronger basis for
making policy decisions. Consequently, social workers often base their arguments
on first-hand, unquantifiable experience when they are dealing with policy makers
who base their arguments on broad-based statistical data. Success in policy advo-
cacy requires an understanding of this difference, and hence an understanding of
the economy.


In spite of the ideological differences between economics and social work, econom-
ics is an extremely important aspect of the public policy debate:
The health of the economy, and therefore economic policy, is vital to the ability of the
nation to undertake other policy goals. An economy that is growing at a healthy,
moderate rate with low inflation can develop new programs and help those who need
assistance. A stagnant economy does not allow for new programs or the expansion of
old ones. (Rushefsky, 2002, pp. 53–54)

Because social welfare policy is interwoven with the economic structure of our so-
ciety, social workers should have a working knowledge and understanding of eco-
nomic phenomena. “Unless the relationship between economics and social work is
strengthened, the ability of social work to influence social policy will tend to de-
crease” (Page, 1977, p. 49). The course of social welfare policy during the 1980s,
1990s, and 2000s seems to confirm this view. Before we can influence social wel-
fare policy, we must understand economic policy. The rest of this chapter is de-
voted to coverage of the key economic issues relevant to social welfare policy and
the relationship of economics to social well-being.


One of the key concepts of the economic marketplace is the balance between sup-
ply and demand. The products and services offered constitute the supply, and the
desire and ability to buy constitute the demand. When there is a high demand, the
price of goods goes up. If the price goes up too much, consumers cannot afford to
buy a product and demand for it decreases. The supply stacks up; prices are cut to
encourage buying; and demand increases again. The reality of supply and demand
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 201

is not as smooth as the theory. Interest in an item or service changes according to

people’s attitudes or because of unexpected negative publicity. Nonetheless, it is a
fact that the U.S. economy experiences periods of expansion and high demand al-
ternating with periods of contraction and low demand.
For example, suppose automobile manufacturers develop a new vehicle, such
as a minivan. People like the vehicle and want to buy it, but few are available. Be-
cause the demand is greater than the supply, there is a shortage of minivans. People
are still interested in buying them, so the price goes up and creates inflation. Be-
cause the price is driven up by demand, and not by an increase in manufacturing
expenses, profit increases. Other automobile companies see the interest in minivans
and the profits others are making, and decide to also make minivans. Now the sup-
ply increases rapidly. The market expands as the supply grows. Eventually, how-
ever, the number of people interested in buying minivans does not increase as fast
as the supply increases. In order to encourage customers to buy their minivans,
manufacturers reduce prices and offer special incentives. This causes deflation, or
the lowering of prices. The amount of profit falls. If manufacturers lose too much
money because of overproduction, some companies lay off workers or shut down
production. This can result in a recession. After a period of low production, the
supply decreases. Some people will still have the interest and means to buy, so the
demand begins to grow once more. With growth in demand, the cycle begins again.
This simplified example illustrates the cyclical nature of the marketplace. How-
ever, the simple give and take between supply and demand may be impacted by
other variables. The example of the minivan production demonstrates further com-
plications with competing economic events. Consider the speedy rise in oil prices
during the summer of 2008. The increase in the cost of gasoline pushed consumers
to reconsider the purchase of low-mileage vehicles like the minivan. The sales of ve-
hicles with low gas mileage declined. Thus, the economics of gasoline has an impact
on consumption, and hence an impact on supply and demand. Sometimes other eco-
nomic events play a strong role in affecting the balance between supply and demand.
The existence of prolonged economic downturns and unexpected events suggests
that the cyclical, self-correcting nature of the economy is not always adequate. The
potential for negative outcomes was addressed by economist John Maynard Keynes
during the 1920s. Keynes advanced the idea that lapses in the supply and demand
cycle could be influenced by government policies. “The crux of Keynes’s message
was that government spending might be an essential economic policy for a depressed
capitalism trying to recover its vitality” (Heilbroner & Thurow, 1982, p. 31). The
acceptance of Keynes’s ideas following the Great Depression led to the direct in-
volvement of government in the supply-and-demand economy.
One major way for government to take a Keynesian approach is to provide
money for those without employment so they can continue to purchase necessities.
Therefore, from an economic viewpoint, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program (formerly the Food Stamp program), which allows people in poverty to
continue to purchase food at local grocery stores, is not just an antipoverty program
but a stimulus to production. This issue arose during arguments about cutting
back Food Stamps under the 1995 policy plans of the Republican Contract with
America. Farmers and agricultural businesspeople argued against cutting back the
Food Stamp program by pointing out that the billions of federal government
202 Chapter 9

dollars spent on Food Stamps indirectly helped agriculture by guaranteeing that

people could buy food no matter how poor they were.
The economic stimulus checks of 2008 are another example of a Keynesian way to
approach the economy. The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 was an effort by the fed-
eral government to address a slowdown in economic growth by putting money back
in the hands of workers and businesses. The program was designed to provide rebates
of up to $600 for individuals and $1,200 for couples. On a small scale per household
that may not seem like a significant infusion of cash. But the program was designed to
cover 128 million households and transfer $152 billion, about one percent of the Gross
Domestic Product of the United States (White House, 2008). While the program did
contribute to Americans spending more through the summer, it appears to have only
marginally diminished the economic downturn. What was especially unusual about
this policy was that it was so strongly backed by a Republican President Bush, whose
policies and party’s positions typically oppose Keynesian economic interventions.
Some people argue that “desperate times call for desperate measures” and so op-
position to government intervention wanes with economic downturns. The economic
downturn of 2007 and 2008 precipitated the largest government intervention in the
economy. Never in U.S. history have so many debt markets—mortgages, bonds, securi-
ties, student loans, corporate lending, home equity loans, credit cards—been disrupted.
The response has been Keynesian. The federal government took over or guaranteed
the economic standing of mortgage lenders, investment banks, student loans that
had originated from private banks, and offered low interest loans backed by the pub-
lic treasury to keep financial institutions afloat. The long-term cost of these interven-
tions could total trillions of dollars (Cho & Irwin, 2008). The Troubled Assets Relief
Program signed into law under President Bush authorized $700 billion and the Ameri-
can Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law under President Obama
authorized $787 billion. These two bills alone pushed government investment in the
economy to over one and a half trillion dollars.
The debate as to the optimal extent of government involvement in the economy is at
the center of much of today’s social welfare policy action. Those who advocate federal
involvement reflect the value of social responsibility, that is, the market system is not
perfect and some people do not benefit from the economic system, and, therefore, the
government must intervene to alleviate the harmful effects of economic policies. Those
who feel the government should not intervene in the economy reflect the belief that the
market should be left alone because government intervention can inhibit the incentive
for individual work and economic growth. Most political disagreements about the ex-
tent and form of social welfare services reflect the struggle between these two positions.


One of the most strongly held economic beliefs, which is connected to our social belief
in individual responsibility, is that if a person works hard, she or he will be rewarded.
This ideology stems from the earliest history of this country, when Americans em-
braced concepts such as “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” and eagerly read
Horatio Alger stories about a young man who rose from rags to riches. Implicit in this
ideology is the belief that there are jobs available for everyone who wants to work and
that all a person needs to do is find a job and stay with it. Although this belief
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 203

permeates our social consciousness, it is not entirely realistic. The job market fre-
quently fluctuates. The existence of a job does not necessarily mean that it is available
to anyone who is looking. Obviously, education and ability play a part in employabil-
ity. Location and unwillingness of employers to consider a wide range of applicants
can block access to employment. Therefore, even when jobs are available, they may
not be available to all who are looking for work. The result is that there are varying
numbers of people who are unemployed and looking for work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of the official rate of unemployment
and announces it on the first Friday of each month. The official definition of unem-
ployment is the following:
Unemployed persons comprise all civilians who had no employment during the reference
week [the week in which the data were gathered that month], who made specific efforts
to find a job within the previous 4 weeks (such as applying directly to an employer or
to a public employment service or checking with friends), and who were available for
work during that week, except for temporary illness. Persons on layoff from a job and
expecting recall are also classified as unemployed. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007, p. 370)

People who have given up on looking for a job; those who would like a job but do
not apply for one because they cannot find child care or transportation to a job site;
and those who are underemployed (i.e., working in jobs that do not use their skills or
give them as many hours as they need) are not officially counted among the unem-
ployed. Therefore, the unemployment rate does not reflect all people who are out of
work. The true rate of unemployment may be significantly higher than the official rate.
In spite of the limitations in counting the number of people who are unem-
ployed, the data provide a valuable indication of employment trends over the years.
Box 9.1 lists selective average unemployment rates from 1960 to 2007. The rate of
unemployment in this country fluctuates and typically reflects the strength of the
economy. Since 1960, the highest annual rate was 9.7 percent in 1982 and the low-
est was 3.5 percent in 1969. By 2009, the unemployment rate had risen to 8.1%,
the highest it had been since 1983, with the largest monthly loss of jobs in January
in almost 40 years (Economic Policy Institute, 2009).


Annual unemployment rates (in percent)

1960 5.5 2000 4.0
1965 4.5 2001 4.7
1970 4.9 2002 5.8
1975 8.5 2003 6.0
1980 7.1 2004 5.5
1985 7.2 2005 5.1
1990 5.6 2006 4.6
1995 5.6 2007 4.6
Source: Economic Report of the President, 2008.
204 Chapter 9

Types of Unemployment Not all unemployment is the same. There are a number of
types of unemployment (Schiller, 2004). Structural unemployment reflects the structure
of our economic system. Some people, in spite of wanting to work, find themselves un-
able to gain access to the training or education needed for the jobs available. For exam-
ple, there may be numerous jobs open for data processing, but if a person has not
attended a school that has up-to-date computers and software, or cannot afford
post–high-school training, a data processing job is out of reach. The unavailability of
suitable employment is also true for the dislocated worker, the person who was trained
for and employed in an occupation no longer needed. Many manufacturing jobs have
been phased out of existence with the development of computerized assembly systems.
Seasonal unemployment reflects changes in employment at different times of
the year. Retailers sell most of their goods during the winter holiday season, so
they hire more workers at that time. Construction jobs tend to be available in the
spring and summer when the weather permits large building projects to be under-
taken. Farm workers, particularly migrant workers, find employment during the
harvest but not during the rest of the year. The time of year and season have an
impact on the needs of employers.
Unemployment that is limited to a specific region or a specific type of work is re-
ferred to as geographic or industry unemployment. When steel mills closed during the
1980s, for example, many workers lost their jobs. Typically, this work was concentrated
in specific geographic areas, such as the Northeast. Although other regions of the coun-
try were growing, communities that relied on specific industries were hurt economically.
To what extent is unemployment an ever-present reality in our nation? The pol-
icy goal of full employment has been vigorously debated since the Great Depression.
Debates about it raise a number of important points. Full employment means there
are very few workers available for jobs paying typical wages, and those looking for
jobs can find them. The economic upheaval of the Great Depression demonstrated
that the goal of full employment was difficult to achieve and that economic cycles
could be severe. The Great Depression convinced people that government interven-
tion might be a suitable means of maintaining economic stability. Supporters of gov-
ernment intervention wanted legislation that promoted full employment. Such
legislation would have made the federal government an employer of those in need
of jobs, typically through public works programs and civil service agencies. Major
business and agricultural groups fought full employment legislation on the grounds
that it would interfere with the free market. Instead of supporting full employment,
policymakers supported the Employment Act of 1946 (Weir, 1987). The Employ-
ment Act’s goal was maximum employment through government actions such as
spending and taxing to stabilize the economy (Axinn & Stern, 2008). Although the
legislation did not commit the government to achieving full employment, it did place
some responsibility for the economy and employment on the federal government.

Effects of Unemployment To social workers, it would seem that unemployment is

not a desirable or healthy condition. In fact, analysis of research on the impact of
unemployment suggests that having a job is crucial to self-esteem and self-definition
(Aldous & Tuttle, 1988). In spite of the psychological benefits of working, public
policies for full employment have never been enacted. In fact, there is an economic in-
centive for continually maintaining a pool of unemployed workers (Schiller, 2004).
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 205

Some analysts argue that there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation.
When the rate of employment increases, more people are working and therefore have
more to spend. When consumers have more money to spend, manufacturers often
seek to make a greater profit by raising prices on goods and services. As prices rise, in-
flation can follow. If prices rise too quickly, inflation occurs faster than growth in
wages. Workers begin to spend less, and supply outpaces demand. The result is a slow-
down in productivity. Fewer workers are needed, and unemployment rises as inflation
goes down. This trend is exacerbated by the benefit of unemployment to employers. If
there are numerous people looking for work, employers can offer lower wages and
quickly fill open positions. If the unemployment rate is low, then there are fewer people
willing to accept less desirable employment.
The social welfare policy conflict rests on the short-term advantages of unemploy-
ment. Businesses tend to prefer having a pool of workers who are not in a position to
make strong demands for high wages or working conditions that may seem costly to
the employer. In reality, however, this short-term gain seems to be more than offset
by the long-term liabilities. Low wages make for low consumption and, therefore, the
economy as a whole suffers. Also, poor working conditions lead to worker dissatisfac-
tion. Those who are unhappy in their work tend to be less productive and less loyal
and are more likely to leave. Worker turnover can become costly over time.



Data reveal strong demographic trends that reflect the disparity in employment in this
country. The statistics in Box 9.2 reveal the difference in unemployment by gender and
race. Racial differences are most pronounced. African-American workers experience
rates of unemployment that are twice as high as those for white workers. Unemploy-
ment rates for Latino workers have consistently been higher than for white workers.

BOX 9.2

Average Unemployment Rates (in percent)

Year Males Females Whites Blacks Hispanics

1980 6.9 7.4 6.3 14.3 10.1

1985 7.0 7.4 6.2 15.1 10.5
1990 5.7 5.5 4.8 11.4 8.2
1995 5.6 5.6 4.9 10.4 9.3
2000 3.9 4.1 3.5 7.6 5.7
2005 5.1 5.1 4.4 10.0 6.0
2008* 6.8 5.6 6.3 11.5 8.9
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007
*4th Quarter statistics (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009)
206 Chapter 9


Economic Realities for Women Fifty-four percent of female workers earn less
than $25,000, compared with 36 percent of male
In the United States, a man earns an average of workers.
$155 more per week than a woman. Only 3.1 percent of senior executives at Fortune
Women with a high school education earn 29 per- 500 companies are women.
cent less than men with a high school education.
Female college graduates earn 27 percent less Source: McAndrew, 2002
than male college graduates.

Until recent years, the rate of unemployment for women tended to be higher than for
men. Even though the unemployment rate for women has leveled off compared with
the rate for men, the economic well-being of women is significantly lower than that of
men (see Box 9.3).


As is typical of so many social welfare policies, the national approach to employ-
ment is residual in nature. Instead of actively promoting full employment, policy
makers respond to unemployment when it becomes a significant problem. The
country’s economic history demonstrates that when left to its own, the employment
market does not provide jobs or sufficient wages for all those who are looking,
particularly for women and people of color.
If the employment arena does not provide enough jobs, one solution is to have
the federal government intervene and help people become employed. The employ-
ment programs of the New Deal, such as the Works Progress Administration and the
Civilian Conservation Corps (discussed in Chapter 2), represented the largest govern-
ment effort at creating jobs. These programs employed millions of workers. The ma-
jor government employment efforts for economically disadvantaged persons over the
past 30 years centered on the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973
(CETA, P.L. 93-203), the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 (JTPA, P.L. 97-300),
and the 1998 Workforce Investment Act (WIA, P.L. 105-220). Efforts under the Amer-
ican Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are designed to reinforce existing systems
by funding additional government projects to employ more people. These programs
represent very different approaches to government-sponsored employment.
The goal of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973
(CETA) was to create public service jobs. The CETA program was a federal, state,
and local effort, which enrolled as many as 750,000 participants during the peak
year of 1978 (Levitan & Gallo, 1992). Unfortunately, however, CETA developed
a negative reputation because of poor administration and political pressures. Public
service employment jobs were doled out as a form of political patronage by local
politicians; cities used CETA workers in basic services so that they did not have to
use city funds; some work sites were poorly supervised; and some positions never
materialized into real jobs (Levin & Ferman, 1985). Research on CETA demon-
strated that the program did not achieve the desired results (LaLonde, 1995).
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 207

In response to the negative publicity of the CETA program, the Reagan admin-
istration vowed to change the approach to employment services from job creation
in the public sector to job placement in the private sector. In 1982, the Job Train-
ing Partnership Act (JTPA) was passed to replace CETA. JTPA placed the responsi-
bility for program administration with state governments and the private sector.
The goal was to link those looking for jobs with existing employment. Each com-
munity was to develop a council with representatives from private employers who
would direct the employment services. Compared to CETA, JTPA received less
funding, did not create new jobs, and provided less social service support for parti-
cipants (Levitan & Shapiro, 1987).
The effectiveness of JTPA was minimal. Although JTPA included over 600
local programs providing services, most services were contracted out to private
groups such as community colleges and trade schools. As one would expect, these
organizations had difficulty creating jobs for those with employment deficits
(Blumenthal, 1987). Investigation of JTPA programs revealed improper spending
without adequate federal and state government oversight (U.S. General Accounting
Office, 1991). Researchers concluded that although there may have been some
short-term benefits from JTPA training, there was no significant improvement in
earnings or employment 5 years after JTPA services were instituted (U.S. General
Accounting Office, 1996).
As part of JTPA and other programs, the federal government was involved in
employment training in many other areas. By the mid-1990s, 154 programs were
administered through 14 different federal departments and agencies. These pro-
grams included numerous separate services for disadvantaged youth, disadvantaged
adults, older individuals, summer employment, and dislocated workers (U.S. Gen-
eral Accounting Office, 1994a). Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these programs
was questionable. Information on the outcomes or effectiveness of the programs
was not adequately collected by agencies, and there was no evidence that partici-
pants who did find jobs were helped by the programs or would not have achieved
the same results on their own (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994b).
Unemployment rates have fluctuated with the economy. Unfortunately, efforts
to increase employment through social welfare services have not been extremely ef-
fective. The average rate of unemployment for adult workers increased in each de-
cade from the 1960s through the 1980s. Although the economic growth of the
1990s resulted in higher overall employment, in recent years the rate has begun to
increase again. If employment and training efforts are not highly effective, then
there is greater need for supportive services for those who are unemployed.
In an effort to consolidate the numerous employment programs and provide
better outcomes, Congress enacted the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) (P.L.
105-220) in 1998, which replaced JTPA. The WIA requires states to offer employ-
ment services through a centralized system, with one-stop centers (Woodbury,
2000). The purpose of the centers is to offer all employment services at a single lo-
cation. WIA services now include 17 programs funded through four federal agen-
cies, all to be offered at one-stop centers (see Box 9.4) (U.S. General Accounting
Office, 2002). Implementation of the WIA did not begin until 2000, so the success
of the program has yet to be fully assessed. The WIA program does seem to offer
improvements over the JTPA because the WIA provides a broader range of services
208 Chapter 9

BOX 9.4

Department of Education WIA Dislocated Worker

Adult Education and Literacy Employment Service (Wagner-Peyser)
Vocational Rehabilitation Program Trade adjustment assistance programs
Vocational Education (Perkins Act) Veterans’ employment and training programs
Department of Health and Human Services Unemployment Insurance
Community Services Block Grant Job Corps
Welfare-to-Work grant-funded programs
Department of Housing and Urban
Senior Community Service Employment Program
Development (HUD)
Employment and training for migrant and
HUD-administered employment and training
seasonal farm workers
Department of Labor
Employment and training for Native Americans
WIA Adult
WIA Youth Source: U.S. General Accounting Office, 2002

and does not use income to determine eligibility. The one-stop centers are open to
anybody. With centralized services and broader use, employment success may be
enhanced. Specialized programs are targeted to those in greatest need, such as dis-
located workers and youth. However, the program is only designed to enhance
people’s employability. It does not address the quality of existing jobs or develop-
ment of new employment opportunities.
During his campaign, President Barack Obama promised to bring back the kind
of infrastructure building and job creation that was part of the New Deal. His intent
was to take a 21st-century approach by using federal monies to invest in new technol-
ogies with an emphasis on developing alternative energy sources. So far, the efforts
under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are to fund additional projects
rather than create a new program or government agency. For example, additional
resources will go to states to fund transportation construction projects and school
improvements. These are not new programs, but will create additional jobs through
expanding projects and existing systems. His economic stimulus plan has the poten-
tial to create a new era in government intervention in the employment arena.

Paying taxes ranks high among peoples’ dislikes, but taxes play a critical role in provid-
ing social welfare services and programs. Taxes are compulsory payments made to the
government. The payments ensure that we have a government that will maintain law
and order, protect property rights, and uphold civil rights. Without the power and
strength of government, there would be no control over the social system and no pro-
tections for citizens. Therefore, taxes are the price citizens pay to feel safe and secure.
There are numerous forms of taxation. For example, taxes are paid on purchases
(sales tax), property (real estate tax), stock sales (capital gains tax), and wages (income
tax). The income tax dates back to 1913 when the Sixteenth Amendment to the Consti-
tution was passed, giving Congress the authority to impose an income tax (Rushefsky,
2002). With the income tax, Congress was able to expand government services greatly.
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 209

Progressive taxes take an increasing percentage as income rises, whereas regres-

sive taxes are proportionately higher on low incomes. The example of OASDI pay-
roll taxes (see Chapter 7) demonstrates regressivity: people with lower incomes pay
a greater proportion of their income to Social Security taxes. The individual income
tax structure is an example of a progressive system. Box 9.5 outlines the tax rates
for 2008. As a person’s income increases, he or she pays a higher rate on the higher
portions of income. It is important to note a misconception that people often have
about tax rates. You might hear someone saying they do not want to earn more
money because their tax rate will go up. As the rates in Box 9.5 demonstrate, one
only pays a higher rate on that portion of the income that goes up.
The issue of who should shoulder the burden of taxes is controversial. Today,
most people feel they pay too much in taxes and so tax cuts have become popular
politically. Because the income tax is removed directly from our paychecks, it creates
an individual sense of paying for government. At times, if government performs ac-
cording to our wants, that personal connection is positive. When government spend-
ing does not reflect our wishes, we resent paying taxes and the connection is
negative. And at times, there are people who favor government spending and those
who do not. The two opposing sides create a conflict that contributes to controversy
over taxes.


If your filing status is single:

If your adjusted gross income is over: But not over: Then your tax is: Of the amount over:

$ 0 $ 8,025 10% $ 0
$ 8,025 $ 32,550 $ 802.50 + 15% $ 8,025
$ 32,550 $ 78,850 $ 4,481.25 + 25% $ 32,550
$ 70,350 $164,550 $ 16,056.25 + 28% $ 78,850
$164,550 $357,700 $ 40,052.25 + 33% $164,550
$357,700 — $ 103,791.75 + 35% $357,700

If your filing status is married filing jointly:

If your adjusted gross income is over: But not over: Then your tax is: Of the amount over:

$ 0 $ 16,050 10% $ 0
$ 16,050 $ 65,100 $ 1,605+ 15% $ 16,050
$ 65,100 $131,450 $ 8,962.50 + 25% $ 65,100
$131,450 $200,300 $ 22,550 + 28% $131,450
$200,300 $357,700 $ 44,828 + 33% $200,300
$357,700 — $ 96,770 + 35% $357,700
Source: Joint Committee on Taxation, 2008
210 Chapter 9

The tax burden in recent decades has declined. From 1979 to 2004, most in-
come groups experienced a decline in the percent of their income paid in federal
taxes. The income tax burden for medium-income families is down to an historical
low of less than six percent of income paid for federal income taxes (Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities, 2007). Tax rules are public policies set by legislators.
As such, they are very political and subject to the beliefs and values of the majority.
It is important to remember that paying taxes may be a requirement of govern-
ment, but who pays what and how much can be changed. In fact, there are
numerous exceptions to what parts of our income we must pay taxes for, as out-
lined in Box 9.6. Each year the federal government excludes or exempts parts of
our gross income from taxes. These special exclusions include exemptions or de-
ductions for contributions to our pension funds, mortgage interest paid on our
homes, and contributions to charities. All these exclusions can be changed
through policy and are subject to the legislative actions of the federal govern-
ment. In 2008, almost $700 billion tax dollars were not collected by the federal
government through these legal exclusions (Joint Committee on Taxation, 2008).
Thus, when debating the extent of taxes we pay, whether it is too high or too
low, we must also consider the taxes that we do not pay due to public policies of
exemption, deduction, or exclusion.


Exclusions to Income Tax in 2008 exemptions, or deductions from a person’s

(in billions) gross income tax, which provides a special
credit leading to a revenue loss or “tax
The following list includes provisions of fed- expenditure” for the federal government:
eral tax law that allow special exclusions,

Tax law provisions Revenue lost in billions

Pension contributions $141

Reduced tax rates on dividends and long-term $128
capital gains
Exclusion for employer contributions for health
care insurance premiums $117
Mortgage interest deduction $80
Exclusion of capital gains at death $54
Earned income tax credit $47
Tax credit for children under 17 $45
Deduction for charitable contributions $35
Deduction of state, local, and property taxes $30
Total $677 billion
Source: Joint Committee on Taxation, 2008
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 211


Economic policies are not always viewed as part of our social welfare system, and
some social welfare programs are regarded as outside the domain of economics.
The following programs, which are directly based on individual and social eco-
nomic conditions, are integral parts of our social welfare system.

The previous chapter introduced the Unemployment Insurance program. Enacted
as part of the 1935 Social Security Act, unemployment insurance was created as a
joint program administered by both the federal and state governments. States de-
cide the duration of, amount of, and eligibility requirements for benefits and di-
rectly administer the program. The federal government provides grants for
administration of the program and is responsible for maintaining the Unemploy-
ment Insurance Trust Fund.
The Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund consists of state-collected payroll tax
dollars from employers. Employers pay unemployment insurance tax according to
the number of workers they employ. For each dollar paid, they receive up to a
90 percent credit against their federal tax (Social Security Administration, 2008).
Because of this tax inducement, all states willingly comply with the program.
Although every state participates in the Unemployment Insurance program, the spe-
cifics of the program vary widely from state to state.
Generally, eligibility is based on the extent of recent employment, willingness
and ability to accept new employment, and involuntary termination from prior em-
ployment. Benefits are provided as a right and do not require a means test. Unem-
ployment coverage provides a percentage of previous earnings for up to a
maximum of 26 weeks in most states. In 2006, the average weekly benefit was
$277 for an average of 15.2 weeks (Social Security Administration, 2008).
The Unemployment Insurance program is one of the few social welfare pro-
grams that tends to be universal in structure. As long as a person has been dis-
missed from a covered job, he or she is entitled to unemployment benefits,
regardless of personal wealth, income, or age. Unfortunately, however, many peo-
ple need to leave jobs for reasons that are not covered, such as caring for a family
member who is ill or caring for children if no other care is available. Also, many
people have part-time jobs and therefore do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
For many unemployed workers, benefits run out before they have found new em-
ployment. This is particularly true during times of greatest need. For example, in
1991, during the peak of economic recession, 3.5 million recipients of unemploy-
ment insurance exhausted their benefits before finding new employment (Shapiro &
Nichols, 1992). Between 1975 and 1996, coverage from unemployment insurance
declined, from 76 percent of the unemployed to 36 percent (Miringoff & Miringoff,
1999). By 2003, almost two years after the previous recession had ended, there
were still one million workers who had exhausted all of their unemployment bene-
fits but had not found work (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2003). With
212 Chapter 9

the recession of 2007 and 2008, many workers faced the same shortfall in benefits.
By the end of 2008, more than one in five unemployed workers had been jobless
for over half a year (Economic Policy Institute, 2008). Thus, more than two million
unemployed workers had already reached or were near the end of benefit coverage.
Although the Unemployment Insurance program provides a necessary safety net for
people who lose jobs, it is not comprehensive and does not provide for all who are

Another public policy that is related to employment and provides wage security for
workers is the minimum wage. The concept of a minimum wage is that the govern-
ment intervenes to guarantee a base hourly wage. The instability of the market and
the imbalance in power between employers and employees serve as the rationales
for government intervention in wages. The minimum wage was discussed in the
previous chapter because of its potential role in preventing poverty for low-income
The aftermath of the Great Depression spurred lawmakers to investigate labor
practices. Industry support of strike breaking, labor spies, and violent attacks on
workers prompted the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (Axinn &
Stern, 2008). In addition to standardizing work hours and controlling child labor,
the legislation set a minimum wage below which employers could not legally pay
workers. The hourly rate in 1938 was set at 25 cents an hour; it had risen to
$4.25 an hour in 1991 (Social Security Administration, 1994). In 1996, President
Clinton and Congress agreed to new legislation, the Small Business Protection Act
(P.L. 104-188), which raised the minimum wage to $4.75 per hour as of October
1, 1996, and to $5.15 per hour as of September 1, 1997. In 2006, the minimum
wage was once again raised through legislative action to amend the Fair Labor
Standards Act. The rate was scheduled to increase incrementally from 2007 to
2009, rising to $5.85 in 2007, $6.55 in 2008 and $7.25 in 2009.
Critics argue that the minimum wage is inadequate and has not kept pace with
the cost of living. As shown in Box 9.7, the value of the minimum wage shrunk
over the years. The 2006 rate of $5.15 per hour was the lowest in constant dollars
since the 1950s. With the increases for 2008 and 2009, the minimum wage pro-
vides a higher wage level, which should positively impact low wage earners.
The differences between working full-time at minimum wage and the poverty
line are outlined in Box 9.8. Even with the increases, the disparity between mini-
mum wage income and living in poverty in 2008 was more than five thousand dol-
lars for a family of three. Based on these calculations, the minimum wage would
have to be raised beyond the new levels to lift a family of three above the poverty
line. Without public assistance or benefits through the Earned Income Tax Credit,
full-time work at minimum wage still leaves a family below the poverty line. This
difference highlights one of the many policy contradictions in our social welfare
system. Although people are categorized as living in poverty with incomes below
officially recognized levels, legislation that sets a minimum accepted level for wages
does not set that level to pay wages that lift workers or their families out of
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 213


The Value of the Minimum Wage in 2008 Dollars

Value of the Minimum Wage

Year Nominal dollars 2008 dollars

1947 $0.40 $3.42

1961 $1.05 $6.69
1975 $2.10 $7.44
1980 $3.10 $7.67
1985 $3.35 $6.36
1990 $3.80 $5.86
1995 $4.25 $5.93
2000 $5.15 $5.40
2005 $5.15 $5.65
2008 $6.55 $6.55
Source: Economic Policy Institute, 2008


Minimum Wage Earnings in Compari- The difference between full-time earn-

son to Poverty Line, 2008 ings at minimum wage and the poverty
threshold for family of three ¼ –$5,018
$6.55  40 hours per week  52 weeks
Even at the 2009 rate of $7.25 for min-
per year ¼ $13,624 per year
imum wage, after Social Security the
After Social Security taxes ¼ $12,582
full-time income would be $13,926, which
annual full-time income
does not even reach the 2008 poverty
Poverty line for family of three in 2008
level for a family of two.
¼ $17,600
Source: Author calculations

Opponents of the minimum wage argue that government interference in setting

pay levels destroys free enterprise and causes economic imbalances. They feel that if
employers are forced to pay higher wages, there will be fewer jobs available. Research
findings suggest this is not true. In a study done in New Jersey, labor economists
found that when the minimum wage was increased, even during a state economic re-
cession, the number of jobs actually increased (Epstein, 1995). The researchers theo-
rized that higher wages attract people to jobs and keep them working; this results in
more long-term employment, sparing employers the costs of frequent turnover.
214 Chapter 9

Although the concept of a minimum wage is usually relegated to economic dis-

cussions, it has important implications for social work. Most low-paid workers
lack economic security during recessions or changes in the employment market.
Many are not covered by unemployment insurance and are consequently the most
likely candidates for public assistance. If the minimum wages of available employ-
ment were adequate to support a family, it is likely that fewer people would be de-
pendent on public assistance.


Recent public policy efforts to make employment worthwhile centered on the
Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program, which was discussed in Chapter 8. En-
acted in 1975, the legislation allows for a decrease in taxes paid for low-income
workers. The program is administered through the filing of a tax return and there-
fore does not involve additional federal agencies or administrators. The provisions
of the EITC are complicated and vary according to income level and size of house-
hold. Generally, the lower the income, the higher the tax credit. In cases where the
income is extremely low, families may qualify to receive a direct grant. As demon-
strated in Chapter 8, the program can have a positive impact on the economic situ-
ation for low-income families who participate in the labor force and file an income
tax return.
The program has received support from both political parties. It is supported
because it rewards people for working, and it is efficient because it is handled
through the existing Internal Revenue Service (Hutchinson, Lav, & Greenstein,
1992). Critics charge, however, that although the EITC helps low-income indivi-
duals, it also keeps wages low. Why should employers raise wages when the gov-
ernment subsidizes poor workers to accept the low wages? In effect, the EITC uses
tax dollars to supplement poorly paid workers instead of placing the responsibility
on the employers themselves (McDermott, 1994). This brings us back to the ques-
tion of who should be responsible for determining wages: the government or the
marketplace? Should wage levels be left entirely to the ebb and flow of economic
conditions, or should the federal government intervene? If the government inter-
venes, what should that action be? Should employers be regulated, or should work-
ers be supplemented? Those questions continually surface in the ongoing debates
regarding economic policy and social well-being.


How do the workings of the federal budget affect social workers and their prac-
tice? The federal budget may seem far removed from the day-to-day activities of
social service providers. As demonstrated throughout this book, the impact of gov-
ernment policies flows through all levels of our social welfare system and ultimately
affects our direct practice. The federal budget is the main source of revenue for na-
tional social welfare programs and services. Federal money is used to fund services
for children, families, health care, unemployment, retirement, education, national
security, and other areas of social welfare. Budget cuts necessitate reductions in
social welfare programs and services.
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 215


Each year the federal government creates a plan for what and how much should be
spent on the business of government. The process begins on or before the first
Monday in February, when the president is required by law to submit to Congress
a budget proposal for the following fiscal year. Box 9.9 outlines the timeline for the
budget process. Part of the plan includes estimates for how much money will be
taken in for taxes and how much the economy will grow. Because the plan is devel-
oped almost a year before it is implemented, the president’s budget is the starting
place for discussions and negotiations with Congress and government agencies.
Congressional hearings precede voting on the appropriation measures. By Septem-
ber 30, on the eve of the new fiscal year, Congress and the president must enact
the new budget.


When the government ends the year with more revenue than was spent, it has a
surplus. When the government overspends, it incurs a budget deficit. In order to
continue financing its operations, the government must borrow to make up for the
shortfall. The largest amount of borrowed money is financed through the selling of
government treasuries to the public. This borrowed amount is referred to as the
public debt. The public debt is the cumulative total of all federal deficits minus
any surplus. By 2007, that amount had exceeded five trillion dollars (Congressional
Budget Office, 2008).
From 1962 through 1997, the federal government had a deficit in every year
except 1969. From 1998 through 2001, for the first time in decades, the federal gov-
ernment realized a budget surplus in consecutive years. Since 2002, the federal
government has gone back to accruing a deficit annually. Box 9.10 lists the deficits
and total debt for the past 30 years.
The budget surplus was short lived. The impact of the recession on lowering
wages consequently lowered tax revenues. President Bush began his term in 2001


First Monday in February the president submits budget proposal to Congress

February through September Congress works on budget resolution, setting the framework for
expenditures and taxes, with the goal of passing the budget by
April 15
Congressional hearings are held on budget and appropriation
Congress passes 13 annual appropriation bills, no later than
September 30
October 1 Budget begins with new fiscal year
Source: Executive Office of the President, 2001; Meyer, 2002
216 Chapter 9

BOX 9.10

Deficit Public Debt Deficit Public Debt

1975 53 395 1993 255 3,248

1976 74 477 1994 203 3,433
1977 54 549 1995 164 3,604
1978 59 607 1996 108 3,734
1979 40 640 1997 22 3,772
1980 74 709 1998 þ69 3,721
1981 79 785 1999 þ126 3,632
1982 128 919 2000 þ236 3,410
1983 208 1,131 2001 þ127 3,320
1984 185 1,300 2002 158 3,540
1985 212 1,499 2003 375 3,914
1986 221 1,736 2004 412 4,326
1987 150 1,888 2005 319 4,645
1988 155 2,050 2006 248 4,893
1989 153 2,189 2007 161 5,054
1990 221 2,410 2008* 407 5,461
1991 270 2,688 Source: Congressional Budget Office, 2008; U.S. Census
Bureau, 2007
1992 290 2,999 *Projected

with tax cuts, further reducing incoming federal revenue, and increased defense
spending to pay for homeland security and the war in Iraq. The annual deficit
grew dramatically and pushed the public debt to the more than five trillion dollars.
The costs for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other global war on terror
operations totaled $805 billion from 2002 to 2008 (Congressional Research Ser-
vice, 2008). Analysts predict that the costs of the wars and what will need to be
spent to care for veterans and refurbish the military will exceed $1.5 trillion, and
if the long-term costs to our economy that will be incurred over the years are
added, the total is likely to exceed $3 trillion (Bilmes & Stiglitz, 2008). The federal
government’s interventions to stabilize the financial markets also pose unknown fu-
ture costs. While the final numbers will not be known for years to come, we al-
ready have seen how these economic demands have pushed the deficit higher and
added to the public debt. By the close of 2008, the federal government had pledged
more than one trillion dollars to aid the U.S. economy and financial system. These
efforts included $124 billion for an economic stimulus program; $300 billion in
support of mortgage insurance; $200 billion for the takeover of Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac mortgage associations (there is more on this later in the chapter); and
$700 billion for a Wall Street bailout (Montgomery & Eggen, 2008). The
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 217

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act authorized an additional $787 billion.

These expenses and more to come will add significantly to the public debt.


The consequences of operating the federal government with such a high deficit are
unclear. Some policy makers view this as dangerous to long-term economic health,
whereas others consider it a fact of life for a large government. When the federal
budget is decreased, resources for government programs are also decreased. As
long as people will still invest in the government by purchasing securities, there is
a cycle of transferring money from the public to the government and back again.
Because there has never before been a time in history when the dollar amount of
the total federal debt was so large, there is no precedent for interpreting the long-
term impact of such a large deficit. It remains to be seen whether the cycle has be-
come stable or whether economic distress will be the outcome of such an imbalance.
Contentious political debate surrounds deficit reduction. Although both the
president and Congress agree that the budget must be balanced and the debt re-
duced, there is little consensus on how to accomplish this goal. Even when there
was a surplus, Congress and the president did not produce budget plans that would
save money for the future (Pianin, 2000). President Bush sent Congress budgets
that simultaneously decreased taxes and increased expenditures, particularly de-
fense expenditures. Between 2000 and 2004, tax revenues fell 76 percent, in part
because of the recession and in part because of tax cuts proposed by President
Bush and enacted by Congress (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2004).
With the decrease in revenues and increase in defense spending, the deficit soared.
The impossible combination of tax cuts and increased spending has left the long-
term problem of the deficit and public debt unresolved. Movement from deficit to
surplus back to deficit demonstrates the unpredictability of economic conditions
and, hence, the difficulty in controlling economic policy. Federal spending also pro-
vokes debate concerning the optimal size of government. Box 9.11 summarizes this

The federal budget is in itself a social welfare policy. Each year, as Congress and
the president debate the budget and work toward enactment of annual budget
legislation, policy choices and options are discussed. How we spend our budget
reflects national priorities and consequently shifts over time. Box 9.12 lists the
main categories of spending in fiscal year 2007. Over half the budget went to cover
Social Security, Medicare, and national defense. Interest on the debt required 9 per-
cent of the national budget. Where do federal revenues come from? Most federal
money comes from the personal income tax and social insurance retirement and
health care taxes. For fiscal year 2006, 39 percent of the federal income came
from personal income taxes; 32 percent from Social Security, Medicare, and other
retirement taxes; 13 percent from corporate income taxes; and seven percent from
excise, estate, and other miscellaneous taxes. Nine percent was borrowed to cover
the deficit (Internal Revenue Service, 2008).
218 Chapter 9


The battle cry of conservatives used to restoring the balances of federalism with
be “Shrink the federal government!” Cur- the states. Clearly, President Bush has
rent changes in ideologies, however, are had a different vision, and that vision has
creating conflict: resulted in education and welfare policies
that have increased the size and scope of
When conservative Republicans took con-
government” (quoted in VandeHei, 2005,
trol of Congress in 1994, their platform for
p. 11).
change included shrinking the size of the
After taking office in 2001, President
federal government by decreasing federal
Bush increased federal government spe-
spending. The goal was to devolve admin-
nding. In the final year of the previous
istration back to state governments. This
presidency under Bill Clinton, the federal
sentiment is captured in the words of then
government spent $1.8 trillion and had an
Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, “If I
annual surplus of $236 billion. By 2008,
have one goal for the 104th Congress it is
the federal government spent almost three
this: that we will dust off the 10th Amend-
trillion dollars and had an annual deficit of
ment and restore it to its rightful place in
more than 400 billion dollars. Regardless
the Constitution. We will continue in our
of the reasons for the increase in spend-
drive to return power to our states and
ing, this trend raises the question of what
our people” (quoted in VandeHei, 2005,
happened to the movement to decrease
p. 11). And for the next five years, that
the size of the federal government and re-
was the goal of the majority of members
turn control to state governments. And it
of Congress. Interestingly enough, the
also raises the question of how much is
election of George W. Bush, an avowed
too much for annual deficits and govern-
conservative, changed the direction. In
ment spending. Those who favor limiting
the words of another Republican member
government spending must be asking
of Congress, Mike Pence of Indiana, “The
themselves, “Who is minding the store?”
Republican majority, left to its own de-
when such astronomical growth occurs un-
vices from 1995 to 2000, was a party
der a conservative Republican president.
committed to limited government and

As a policy document, the federal budget prioritizes what congressional leaders

and the president consider important. For example, spending for homeland security
became a priority following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The following two years,
Congress had authorized $37 billion for homeland security (Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities, 2004), which was more than the total spent on TANF and Food
Stamps combined.
Even though having a large deficit may not have devastating effects on the
economy, it does have a limiting effect on social welfare spending. Much of the
budget is mandatory, and some of it is considered too important to cut. Social
Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt are mandatory. National defense, par-
ticularly after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, is considered by many in political
power to be untouchable. These costly items mean that the budget must be balanced
by cutting back on other budget items; increasing tax revenue, a most disliked option
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 219



Receipts 2,568 B
(Deficit) (163) B
EXPENSES—partial list Percent of total budget

National defense 549 B 20%

Social Security (OASDI) 581 B 21%
Medicare 436 B 16%
Interest on the debt 238 B 9%
Medicaid 1911 B 7%
TANF & Family Support payments 21 B .8%
Food Stamps 35 B 1.3%
SSI 36 B 1.3%
Veterans 36 B 1.3%
Education, training, employment 75 B 2.8%
International affairs 37 B 1.4%
Science, space, technology 26 B 1%
Transportation 62 B 2.3%
Earned Income & Child Tax Credits 54 B 2%
SCHIP 6B .2%
Source: Congressional Budget Office, 2008

for politicians; or increasing the debt through larger annual deficits. Therefore,
with greater demands on Social Security and national defense, the infusion of
money into the financial and housing markets, dislike of taxes, and concern over
the growing public debt, it is likely that social welfare programs will be cut. In
this way, budget priorities and economic conditions directly affect the security of
social welfare programs.

So far we have reviewed economic concerns in the public domain. No less impor-
tant are the economic conditions and circumstances of the private sector. The larg-
est piece of the private economy rests with the corporate sector. The connection
between governmental economic policies and the corporate sector is significant.
Numerous private businesses rely heavily on government subsidies and economic
support. What is this support? Examples include business tax breaks that lower
corporate tax bills. For example, in 2000, $22 billion was allowed for accelerated
220 Chapter 9

depreciation (allowing companies to subtract the costs of their equipment faster

than the machinery wears out) and $14 billion was allowed for an Internal Reve-
nue Service (IRS) tax exclusion on certain profits earned in other countries (Abra-
movitz, 2001). In 2008, more than $5 billion was set aside for subsidies to
farmers with $178 billion already paid out from 1998–2006 (Environmental
Working Group, 2008).
Other forms of government support to corporate America include emergency
loans at reduced interest rates such as those given to the investment bank of Bear
Stearns in 2008. In this case, the Federal Reserve Bank extended a loan at a re-
duced interest rate. The central bank lent another bank, JP Morgan, $29 billion to
buy the troubled Bear Stearns and its liabilities. The risk to the Federal Reserve and
to taxpayers is what happens with the weak investments in the future, because the
federal government is now the insurer of those investments. On the other hand, if
the federal government did not intervene, a very large and significant bank would
go under, and that would have a major negative impact on the economy. This
involvement of the federal government in the private market was one of several
undertaken as part of the $700 billion authorized by Congress to support financial
institutions with the goal of stabilizing the economy.
Although politically we often hear the pledge to “laissez faire” economics, that
is the desire for a lack of interference from government into the private business
sector, the federal government is often called upon to intervene to maintain equilib-
rium in the marketplace, as described previously. This is particularly true when ma-
jor negative events occur, such as the support given to airlines after 9/11. These
government efforts, while directed toward private corporations, have the effect of
keeping the general economy stable, which in turn helps the entire nation. From a
social welfare policy perspective, this principle of support is behind all government
interventions, whether for corporate America or low-income individuals.
The federal government regularly subsidizes, either through tax breaks, direct
grants, or loans with discounted interest rates, private agriculture and industry.
The rationale for this support is that “What is good for business is good for the
country,” that is, that a strong private sector means jobs and that means individual
economic well-being is enhanced. Although this is true, it also means that fewer re-
sources are available for those whose lives are not improved by employment in the
private sector. As stated in the opening of this chapter, the profit motive of cor-
porations is not conducive to the social welfare of people on the margins of the
economic system: the unemployed; underemployed; unemployed people who are
disabled, elderly, or too young to work; and people who are economically limited
due to discrimination and oppression. The challenge to policy makers is to find
the balance between supporting the private sector and still having the resources to
provide for the social well-being of all members of society.


The concern for social welfare policy in relation to employment and economics
rests with current and future service needs of work and people without work. The
shortcomings of the system and some of the major current policies designed to ad-
dress those social needs have been discussed here, but these policies reflect the state
Economics: Employment, Budgets, and Taxes 221

of the workforce in the past. Examination of demographic shifts suggests that new
public policies will be needed in the future.
Over the past 55 years, the composition of the labor force has changed greatly.
In 1950, 33 percent of women were actively engaged in the labor force and 86 per-
cent of men (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992). By 2006, almost 60 percent of
women participated in the labor force and 74 percent of men (U.S. Census Bureau,
2007). With more women in the workforce, there are more two-parent families in
which both parents are employed and more single-parent families headed by work-
ing mothers. In 1960, 32 percent of men who worked were married to women who
were also in the labor force. By 1990, the percentage had increased to almost
70 percent (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992). In 2005, 68 percent of married
women with children and 73 percent of single women with children were in the
labor force (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).
Other changes have affected the workforce. Despite economic expansion fol-
lowing the downturn of 2001, the real income (that is, accounting for inflation) of
the median family fell each year through 2004 (Mishel, Bernstein, & Allegretto,
2007). The median annual income for men was $31,275 in 2005, but for women
it was $18,576 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007). These changes reflect the recent
decline in income as well as the earning gap between men and women. The result
of an overall decrease in wages means that families are struggling to maintain their
standard of living. Demographic and income changes will increase the need for so-
cial welfare policies that address the social and economic needs of all people.
Further complicating the changes in the demographics of the workforce are
changes in the way industry creates jobs. Recent concern has risen over the ten-
dency for companies to export jobs. Although manufacturers have done so in great
numbers in the past two decades, high-tech firms are now following this practice.
Recent research estimates that 3.3 million U.S. service-sector jobs will be out-
sourced to other countries over the next 15 years, taking along $136 billion in
wages (Schneider, 2004). The financial gain for companies is evident. Computer
programming jobs that pay $60,000 to $80,000 in the United States can be filled
for less than $9,000 in countries such as China and India. This form of employ-
ment outsourcing has become possible with the technological advances of compu-
ters and worldwide access to telephones and satellite communications. The impact
on the U.S. workforce is already being felt.
Another shift in the economy in recent years has been the growing distance
between top earners and those at the bottom and in the middle. In Chapter 8,
Box 8.5 lists the differences in income by households, with the highest group’s
share growing steadily over the past several decades. Income is only the immediate
annual measure of a family’s economic well-being. The accumulation of wealth
through investments, savings, and home ownership provides long-term financial se-
curity. The disparity in wealth is even greater than the disparity in income. The top
20 percent of households controlled 85 percent of the wealth in the United States,
with 15 percent shared by the other 80 percent of households (Mishel, Bernstein,
& Allegretto, 2007). Although half of all families have direct or indirect stock
holdings, that asset is skewed towards the top—less than 12 percent of the bottom
fifth of families have any stock ownership with an average value of $7,500 compared
to 93 percent of the top tenth of families with an average of $205,000 (U.S. Census
222 Chapter 9